Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unto Us - Aaron Shust

Add this to the seasonal recordings that have brought out the best in an artist.

Unto Us
Artist: Aaron Shust (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 10 tracks/41:05 minutes

Followers of Christ should be able to appreciate that Christmas recordings can be more than just a throw-away offering from an artist. In commemorating this season, people like Jeff Johnson, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and many others have done some of their best work. You can add Unto Us by Aaron Shust as one of the fine efforts in this category.

The wide spectrum of sounds and the careful crafting make it obvious that a lot of time and skill went into making this something grand. Regardless of the style on each track, this is marked by regal form and dignity.

“Gloria” is a fine example. It sounds like a procession, beginning with a boy’s choir singing in Latin. Shust joins in, eventually adding, “Let there be peace on earth.” An adult choir and orchestration become part of the mix as the song marches toward a crescendo. It then fades peacefully into the distance.

This seamlessly alternates, sometimes in the same track, between the ancient and modern. “God Has Come to Earth,” works in the chorus, “O Come Let Us Adore Him.” The opening strumming, the winsome melody, the majestic lyrics make it an outstanding new Christmas song.

This is followed by the serene “Sanctuary.” Piano, orchestration and choir combine to create something truly gorgeous. A boy soloist makes the opening lines sound sublime, “Peace is here/Fear is gone/Love has come/Hope has dawned.” Shust then repeats this promise, before the choir joins the chorus, “He will be our sanctuary/Let our hearts not be afraid/Dwelling here with us forever/Jesus Christ is born today.”    

The opening “Star of Wonder (Overture)” is two-thirds instrumental, and the brief “Keep Silent” is completely so. Both serve well to set the mood for what follows.

In the latter case, “Bethlehem,” is an adaptation of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It comes with a new melody that like the original is gentle and beautiful.

“Rejoice” is an adaptation of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” An added chorus makes it follow a more modern song structure. A full complement of voices and instruments make this powerful.

Finally, “Go Tell It,” is a soulful, rollicking version of “Go Tell on the Mountain.” What sounds like a Hammond B3 organ is all over this track. It’s a celebratory way to end a recording that captures all the various moods of the season. 

Could this be the best album of Shust’s career? I don’t have the background to answer that definitively, but this has enough truth, beauty and wonder to make it a contender for that honor.

This shows that Christmas recordings can be far more than something disposable and good for just one season of the year. Why don’t we listen to Christmas recordings more often? It includes some of the greatest music ever composed, performed and recorded. The inspiration for much of it, as here, is Christ’s birth. Without His coming, dying and being raised, there would be no hope. This is worth remembering all year long.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

John: A Misunderstood Messiah - Michael Card

Card’s reflections on the life of Christ never get old

John: A Misunderstood Messiah
Artist: Michael Card
Label: Covenant Artists
Length: 10 songs/39:08
A banjo playing a traditional Irish melody is the first sound on Michael Card’s John: A Misunderstood Messiah. This is soon augmented by Bill Verdier’s fiddle. Together they set the stage for Card’s rumination on Jesus being “The Bread, The Light, The Life.”

The incarnation, the life of Christ, have been constant themes in Card’s career. It makes the gospels ideal subject matter for his recordings.

This is the last of four recordings covering Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, one for each book.

On this, and the prior releases, Card once again leans more toward a stripped-down, roots-oriented sound, which serves him well.

His banjo playing is once again evident, and I would appreciate more of just stringed instruments playing together as on the previously alluded to track.

Fortunately, the banjo is once again prominent on the gentle tune, “How Can These Things Be?” Keep in mind these songs are all inspired by John’s gospel. Can you guess the identity of the person from the following words? “He clings to his own righteousness/Of being good to be blessed/But Jesus speaks of a healing wind/The fact of being born again.” I have not heard a better song about Nicodemus.

This is followed by what might be the most gorgeous track. Ginny Owens composed the music for “All I’ve Ever Done” and performs it on piano. She is the sole voice of the lyrics written by Card from the perspective of the so-called “woman at the well” (John 4). Card wisely chose to have a female voice, and Owens rises to the occasion, giving one of her best performances.

This continues Card’s inclination to collaborate. I admire his willingness to share the microphone. He makes “better together” more than a cliché. It’s a reminder that when people work together the result is often greater than mere individual efforts.

“Scribbling in the Sand” (John 8) describes what Jesus did when asked what should be done with a woman caught in the act of adultery. Previously, this was recorded for a live performance bearing the same title, released in 2002. It’s one of Card’s most inspired songs. This features him on piano and John Catchings on cello creating a sound that is timeless.

Also included is the only song that I have ever heard about the time when the Bible simply says, “Jesus wept” (John 11). The strings are so delicate, the perfect enhancement to the fragile sentiments.

The closing, “Stranger on the Shore” (John 21), was originally recorded on First Light (1981). The bold chorus stands out: “You need to be confronted by the stranger on the shore/You need to have him search your soul; you need to hear the call/You need to learn exactly what it means for you to follow/You need to realize that he’s asking it for all.” It’s a challenging way to end this recording and the series.

There may be a few too many piano ballads here for some, but that format fits the deep subject matter well.  The variation is about right, and each song can be a source of meditation. Whenever Card reflects on the life of Jesus, which is often, you can expect songs that convey some of the spiritual riches found in Christ. This does not disappoint.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

John: The Gospel of Wisdom - Michael Card

Developing an informed imagination is like gathering wood so that you can enjoy a fire.

John: The Gospel of Wisdom
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 234          

Perhaps the highest praise I could give for John: the Gospel of Wisdom by Michael Card is that it creates a desire to become a better student of the Scriptures. This sentiment applies to any of the four commentaries, one for each gospel, which Card has authored over the last four years.

I greatly esteem his work as a musician, songwriter and recording artist, for which he is probably best known. He gave us “El Shaddai,” the song made popular by Amy Grant. And yet, for all his accomplishments in music and as an author of many books, I think this four volume commentary set is his most significant work.

His exposition of the Scriptures over the years in song and book have brought him to the place where he can make the gospel accounts of Christ come to life in the imagination of his readers. One of the beauties of this effort is that these commentaries are made to be read instead of just being a work you consult. They are scholarly but accessible, detailed but brief. Card has achieved a wonderful balance.

His intent goes beyond providing information. Card sets an example of gathering facts in the service of a sanctified use of imagination. It’s like gathering wood so that you can enjoy a fire. It’s seeing the Scriptures come alive through gaining a clearer picture.

Card writes, “It is always the informed imagination. We must become committed to doing the work, to finding the best sources, beginning with the primary sources, the earliest writings: Mishnah, Talmud, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus. These ancient sources do not exist only for the scholars. They are all readily available, now more than ever with electronic books. (Many of them are free!) (13)”

So the greatest benefit may not be reading Card’s exposition. It’s following his example of learning how to interact with the Bible in such a way that it becomes more than just words on a page. Right from the start (in the preface), he demonstrates the method he learned when he references John 7:37, the verse he identifies as being “responsible for opening the door of my imagination to engage with the Scripture” (11).

William Lane, a man Card regards as a mentor, opened that door by asking a few simple questions in a lecture hall filled with students. Out of the silence, Lane began to quote from memory a passage from the Mishnah (the collected teachings of the rabbis between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200), which provided background information on what occurs on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Lane instructed the class to take that information and return to the passage where Jesus cries out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink …”

Card describes his watershed moment as follows, “This was the first time I had ever read the Bible with an informed imagination. The words on the page that a moment ago were a dry devotion became a motion picture in full color…. The thought of it still takes my breath away over thirty years later” (12).   

Aside from seeing Card’s technique at work, I appreciate his valuable insights. He offers the following in relation to Jesus being full of grace and truth: “Jesus is full of grace and truth, but not truth as anyone in the history of humankind has ever known. Not truth as a right answer or truth as the correct words, but truth as a person—living, breathing and eventually bleeding and dying. Truth that one comes to know personally in the context of a life, not between the pages of a textbook. From this moment on, knowing the truth will not necessarily mean being right but rather being faithful. Knowing the truth will no longer mean knowing the answers but only knowing Jesus Christ” (36).

Card also has relevant discernment. In reference to the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5), who had been sick for 38 years, he writes, “Jesus understands that there is no point in engaging with this man. If he is ever to walk again he must simply be commanded to do so. Because Jesus, in his humility, so often says, ‘it is your faith that healed you’ (compare Mk 10:52; Lk 18:42), some have taught that a person must have faith in Jesus to be healed. This story flies in the face of that erroneous idea. The man has no idea who he is talking to” (77).

When covering Jesus’ difficult sayings in John 6, Card wisely avoids getting sidetracked through discussion of the various ways this passage has been interpreted. I might have wanted him to go further, but he keeps it straightforward without any divisive application.  

When he does make application, as is the case in the beginning of John 6, it has a broad nature: “My mentor William Lane used to say that the followers of Jesus should always work at the level of their own inadequacy. We shouldn’t be satisfied simply doing the things we are good at. We should strive to be right on the edge so that if the Lord doesn’t show up to help us, we will fail miserably” (85).

“The story of the woman taken in adultery is one of the most problematic passages in the New Testament in terms of authenticity (103),” Card writes in his opening remarks on John 8:1-11. He goes on to say, “Against its genuineness are the facts that the oldest manuscripts of John do not contain it, and none of the church fathers referred to it, showing that their manuscripts did not contain the passage either.” Card explains that “the most widely held explanation to these problems is that the story was cut from the earliest copies of John because Jesus seems to be condoning adultery. Later it was restored, though its original position in the text had been lost.”

Card’s examination of the evidence leads him to conclude that the accepted explanations are inadequate. He briefly outlines the case for the authenticity of the passage. Right or wrong, I appreciate his ability to gather facts and form his own conclusions. Because it’s not found in the oldest manuscripts, I have suspected that the passage did not belong, but Card gives me another viewpoint to consider.

I appreciate his attention to detail. It’s what makes him a fine scholar.

I wonder if the publisher could package this four volume series in a box set. Regardless, it will be a fine addition to any library, personal or institutional.

Along the way, Card has recorded an album of songs, one for each of the four gospels. His ability to incorporate Scripture into song is second to none. Again, the publisher might want to consider a box set for the CDs.

Look for the forthcoming CD review, John: A Misunderstood Messiah

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pilgrimage - Steve Bell

Pilgrimage is a journey worth taking.  

Artist: Steve Bell (
Label: Signpost Music
Length: Four CDs

How do you commemorate 25 years as a solo artist in the music industry? If you are Canadian musician Steve Bell you create a four disc box set of new songs plus old ones reinterpreted by yourself and friends.

Pilgrimage by Steve Bell is one of the finest releases of the year. It’s not just the quantity of music and the outstanding packaging that includes a 152 page book. The new collection of songs may be Bell’s best release to date.

If he were to give them a subtitle, it would be From Lent to Love. A number of these tracks were originally intended for an album with that theme. They convey the idea of being off-course and the corresponding need to return. Far from being guilt-inducing and condemning, this encourages that step towards becoming whole.

The music is generally mid-tempo, like being on a relaxed journey toward a desired destination. Interplay of finger-picking on a variety of instruments, including banjo, provides a roots music type of experience. Violin player, Hugh Marsh, a past collaborator, weaves his distinctive playing into several tracks. A touch of mournful pedal steel suggests a rural, even desert landscape. The sounds vary but one constant is expert craftsmanship in lyric and performance.

Maturity is evident. I don’t hear youthful angst. Thoughts expressed are full of gentle wisdom.

“Mercy Now,” a Mary Gauthier song, adapted to fit Bell’s own situation, may be the most moving example. This should resonate with those who have aging parents. If ever a song could move to compassion, this is it. It’s sung with such sincerity and tenderness. As it progresses the scope widens beyond family relations: “Every living thing could use a little mercy now/Only the hand of grace could stay the pace/Of nature’s rage against us now.” It makes for some sublime moments.

In contrast, a joyful sound is heard on the opening, “Think About That.” The banjo reminds me of early Sufjan Stevens. This has a cheerful melody with uncluttered production.   

Bell fully intended to write verses to the simple but profound lyric: “Whoever loves God loves all that God loves/Think about that/Think about that.” When the producer heard the words in demo form he said, “It’s done. Leave it alone, there’s nothing else that needs to be said …” No need to distract from the powerful thought. 

Hugh Marsh’s electric violin adds to the magic. It’s a brilliant way to start this commemoration project.

“Big Mistake,” the next song, is a rarity in that it deals with the subject of disillusion. Israel is pictured as a bride that has eloped with her husband. The vocal inflections match the change from honeymoon euphoria to uncomfortable distress. How like the Christian life, especially if we have imagined it as the beginning of bliss with little hardship. 

“Wayfaring Stranger,” the classic hymn, has always resonated due in part to the sense of longing. Once again the production is perfect, being on the quiet side with Bell singing softly. It enables me to experience the familiar in a new way.

This first disc, titled Pilgrimage, which contains the new songs, may be destined to become my favorite of all Bell’s releases. In every way it’s rich in beauty and meaning.

If that isn’t enough, the other three discs are all excellent. Disc 2, Unadorned, is Bell and his guitar, revisiting fan and personal favorites. It adds timelessness to a selection of his best songs and highlights Bell’s skill on his instrument of choice.

On Disc 3, Good Company, friends and collaborators like Carolyn Arends and Bob Bennett, cover Bell’s songs. This has a wide variety of arrangements, and the fresh takes make me appreciate the songwriting. These songs shine once again through the talents of these admirers.

Lastly, Disc 4, Landscapes, holds up surprisingly well with songs stripped of the vocals. Instrumentals take you to different places, and in this case, if a listener is familiar with Bell’s past work, they are reminded of places they have been.

In this life, we can easily become satiated with the wrong things, lesser things, or perhaps, the things that are not best. When I started playing this album it sounded so delightful that I thought why am I listening to anything else? But if unlike me, someone does not take to it immediately, I want to say, learn to like it. Give yourself a chance to discover how much pleasure can come from what initially might not grab attention. It seems like so many of us are impatient when it comes to experiencing art.

Pilgrimage is a journey worth taking. This video gives a sense of the ride: “Turn it Around.” 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Slow Church - C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison

A challenging, refreshing alternative to mass market faith

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
Authors: C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 246

Being in the wrong church can be like being in the wrong job. Those in leadership may point toward the door. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. At times that may be necessary, but the top-down approach, which mirrors what you find in the business world, troubles me.

Jesus made time for people. Oswald Chambers identified that as the mark of a truly spiritual person. If nothing else, Slow Church moves Christians who comprise the church in that direction and this alone makes the book praiseworthy.

Just the title, Slow Church, is appealing in a society that prizes speed and activity. Programs are the order of the day, and if I can’t find a place, there must be something wrong with me. Again, it’s get with the agenda or be held in low regard.

I’m not against efficiency. There is much to do, the work vital and little time. But when achieving becomes all-consuming, people can become a casualty, more like role players than individuals with unique contributions to make.

I’m not pointing the finger at my church or any other. It’s just something I have observed in a variety of settings.

These types of experiences are what make Slow Church challenging and appealing. It’s the opposite of “franchise faith.” Franchises are all about standardizing to achieve quantifiable results.

The authors of Slow Church point out that “the North American church seems to be just as susceptible as the rest of the culture to the allure of fast life, or what the sociologist George Ritzer has termed ‘McDonaldization’—that is, ‘the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’” (13). Ritzer identified four characteristics of this trend: efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control.

Throughout the book, I like how the authors provide the history of how these and related ideas developed and became pervasive. Their inspiration, language and philosophy come in part from the Slow Food Movement. They write, “Just as Slow Food offers a pointed critique of industrialized food cultures and agricultures, Slow Church can help us unmask and repent of our industrialized and McDonaldized approaches to church” (15).

Their vision is the antithesis of the seeker-friendly church growth model: “The primary work of Slow Church is not attracting people to our church buildings, but rather cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (33).

Slow Church seeks to be as Christ in neighborhoods, communities and the larger world. It sees the interconnectedness of all things. God is not just reconciling individuals but all of creation.

The desire to establish justice in every sphere is almost like a reaction against an industrialized faith that concerns itself with saving souls but may be less attentive to righting wrongs. It reminds me of the apostle Paul recalling the admonition given him by leaders of the early church, “They asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10 ESV).

My pastor once noted that churches often gravitate to one of two extremes. On the one hand, you have churches that are strong in evangelism. Others major in social justice issues. One challenge is to recognize the validity of both while holding them in balance. In addition to sharing the gospel, Paul was eager to help the poor.

In seeking to make the world better through following the way of Christ, Slow Church is counter-cultural, which is a form of evangelism. Here in the US that may be an essential component, given that our society is less responsive to words only. People want to see a difference, an embodiment of the gospel, which is what Slow Church is all about. Even so, it’s important that the good news of Jesus Christ be articulated in words so that people can experience salvation and not just be inspired by an example.

A. W. Tozer once decried a lack of urgency in the Church. It is conceivable that Slow Church, which is long-term oriented and favors the practice of dialogue, might not move as quickly as those who believe the time is short. Giving everyone a say can be time-consuming and tedious. Even though Christians differ on eschatology, there does not need to be a contradiction between urgency and furthering justice. We can look to the Head of the Church to help us hold the two in balance.

Even though some aspects of Slow Church may not be for everyone, there is a wealth of wisdom here to consider. Chapters toward the end on work, gratitude and hospitality can be liberating for both individuals and communities.

When worldly ways infect the Church, it falls short of what God intends and can become dehumanizing. Slow Church is strong on community and makes time for people. This is a real challenge to individualized, consumer-oriented Christianity. I find much to applaud in this alternative, even though the paths presented our difficult when we must act contrary to inclinations and a culture that is achievement-oriented.

C. Christopher Smith is the editor of Englewood Review of Books, a quarterly print magazine that I enjoy. Each issue is in harmony with the principles in this book. It serves in part as an extension of the dialogue found on these pages. Those who want to join the conversation can subscribe at

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why Church History Matters - Robert F. Rea

Seeking consensus across the centuries

Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past
Author: Robert F. Rea
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (
Pages: 231

I came to Christ, or should I say, He revealed Himself to me, at the tail end of the Jesus Movement that swept California in the late 60s. It seems ironic that this historic move of God would give rise to a faith that in some expressions would overlook the importance of history. In one sense it was a break from Tradition. Tradition and traditions are explored in depth in Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea.

As a young believer, I grew up in churches that, to my knowledge, did not encourage the study of church history. Any references to traditions were negative. I am not pointing the finger; just stating how it was as best as I can remember it.

It was on my own that I discovered the value of reading about historical figures and events. I don’t need convincing from this book, even though it serves as a wonderful apologetic for why church history matters and the place for tradition. If you need persuading, you can’t go wrong by starting here.

Some might wonder, “How will this help me today?” A Christian couple that I have known for a long time now embraces a mindset that leans toward universalism. A family member now promotes a form of teaching known as hyper-dispensationalism. As Rea in this book repeatedly states, church history teaches us to “seek consensus across the centuries—consensus fidelium.” Though we may find individuals who embraced a form of universalism, can we say that this is what the Church through the centuries has believed? As hyper-dispensationalists assert, are there two gospels, one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles? Are only the apostle Paul’s teachings considered formative for Christians?

What have Christians in the past believed about these matters? This is where the welcome thoughts of the author lead. What is the consensus? If there was none, what can we learn to help us evaluate troublesome doctrine?

Rea leads from the confusion of the aberrational to the quiet repose of the faith that has been believed and practiced since the time of Christ.

He reminds readers that our communion is not just with our immediate circle. The sphere of influence can extend to believers in the past, who can hold us accountable, just as we today hold them accountable by evaluating their teachings.

This takes us to the most fascinating section of the book, which deals with the subject of interpreting Scripture. It starts with an expert summary of how Christians from the early church to the present have sought to rightly divide the word of truth.

One point echoes a reoccurring theme, “(Moises) Silva contends that historic interpretation is God’s gift to the contemporary church” (149). In other words, taking time to read commentaries and to become familiar with church history is not a waste of time. It allows believers from the past to inform us.

Drawing from another referenced writer, Rea states, “we do not know what Scripture means until we have examined what Scripture has meant, that commitment to biblical authority ‘will actually drive us toward a deeper knowledge of Christian tradition and the history of interpretation, not away from it’” (149).

This leads to a discussion of textual criticism, where scholars, taking into consideration a multitude of factors, try to determine the “precise” text of the Bible. The author, through providing specific examples, makes the point “that historical theology helps the translator of Scripture make better, more informed choices about how to translate” (156). Does this seem dry? The author makes it highly readable, so that any Christian can become familiar with this material.

The last section deals with how knowledge of church history is helpful in a wide variety of ministry applications. It feels a little redundant but it is an accurate assessment.

What commends this volume more than anything is the author’s breadth of knowledge and wisdom pertaining to the subject matter. This might be most helpful to those who doubt the benefit of knowing church history and are skeptical of anything related to tradition. The author never advocates a non-discerning approach.

Most church history books give you narrative accounts of actual events. This book is unique in that it provides a framework for engaging historical thought and practices. It’s a convincing argument that Christians are the poorer when we limit our circles of influence.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, Third Edition - Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan

A masterful application of Scripture to life

An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, Third Edition
Authors: Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan
Publisher: IVP Academic (
Pages: 667

Bob Dylan sang, “Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent/When I paint my masterpiece.” “Masterpiece” is what comes to mind when I read the third edition of An Introduction to Biblical Ethics by Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan.

As close as this comes to such an ideal, one could argue that McQuilkin’s masterpiece is the care he gave to his late wife, Muriel, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This moving story of love and sacrifice is told in A Promise Kept (1998). This was what I knew of McQuilkin, before discovering in this volume, that he is a scholar when it comes to discovering the ethics in Scriptures and how they relate to the issues of life.

This 28-year-old textbook, now updated, was used in a class taught by McQuilkin at Columbia International University, where he served as President from 1968 to 1990. Paul Copan, a former student in the class, and now an ethics professor, was eager to collaborate on revising a book that had been so influential in his life.

How appropriate, given McQuilkin’s background, that the opening section focuses on foundations such as love. The authors write in the hope that their examination of the Scriptures and its relationship to modern ethical dilemmas provokes right attitudes and affections, not merely outward conformity to behavior patterns. Repeatedly, they succeed in getting to the heart of the matter: “Love toward God will exhibit single-mindedness (“purity of heart”), obedience and worship. On the human level, love toward others means sacrificing for their well-being without the motivation of personal gain” (31).

I relish their simple descriptions of love: “The primary characteristic of biblical love is commitment to act for the well-being of another” (33). “Biblical love, then, is an affectionate disposition that motivates the lover to consistently act for the welfare of another, whether or not the other deserves it or reciprocates” (37).

Though this is a textbook it is far from being dry. The authors occasionally personalize the material with quotations and anecdotes. Though I highly recommend this for any Bible college or minister’s library, anyone wanting to lead a richer Christian life will benefit from reading this work. It contains a wealth of wisdom that is highly accessible.

Most of the time the authors are in agreement, but when they differ, the book offers both of their perspectives. A person might agree with McQuilkin’s complementarian view of marriage, and then have second thoughts after reading Copan’s egalitarian perspective. Regardless of where one stands, or who seems right, it’s helpful to have summaries of contrasting positions.

This book provides the heart of a biblical perspective on a vast array of subjects. It’s what makes this such a marvelous resource. Gay marriage, transgender issues, dating, abortion, suicide, medical ethics, war and peace, and just about any topic you can think of are covered here. This new edition updates the subjects, making them relevant for our day. Each chapter ends with suggestions for further reading.

The Ten Commandments provide the outline and basic framework for analysis. They are taken in order and each topic is examined and finds its place under the appropriate command. It’s a marvelous exposition from beginning to end.

What a far cry from my experience with the textbooks of my youth! Of course, much of the problem was an unconverted soul with no heart for learning. Even so, textbooks that leave out God are limited. Having Scripture as the source material, this volume comes alive with the breath of God. This takes God and His word as the starting point. It is true delight for the follower of Christ who rejoices in God’s commands.

Even if one may disagree on some points, it’s wonderful to be immersed in such holy perspectives. Our wrestling with complicated issues may help us to not only get closer to the truth but closer to the heart of God.

The regenerate, teachable heart will find living hope. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kindness - Steve Bell

Don’t overlook Kindness on the way to Pilgrimage

Artist: Steve Bell (
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/47 minutes

Steve Bell is marking his 25th anniversary as a solo artist with Pilgrimage, a four disc set releasing on September 15, 2014.
In the meantime, I want to look at Kindness (2011), which I failed to negotiate when it was released. Bell’s only recording since then is Keening for the Dawn (2012), a collection of songs celebrating Advent.

If you are a stranger to Steve Bell, he seeks “to encourage Christian faith and thoughtful living through artful word and song.” Mission accomplished on Kindness.

The first and second songs are about the centrality of love and kindness. “Love is patient. Love is kind.”

We can never be reminded enough about kindness. Ravi Zacharias, an internationally known evangelist and speaker, once lamented that in his travels he often witnessed the lack of it between married couples. The quotation featured prominently on the inside of the CD cover reads: “I have sought how I might make God more loved by other souls … And have not found any other or more powerful way than kindness” (Lucie-Christine/1844-1908).

The title track lists Brian McLaren with the writing credit. It is an adaptation of Teresa of Avila’s Christ Has No Body, “Christ has no body but yours/No hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

This, like several of the other tracks, has a peaceful, acoustic sound. Here and elsewhere Russ Pahl’s pedal steel adds to the serenity.

Another standout is Mike Janzen on keyboards, who contributes a delightful piano solo toward the end of “About Love.”

If potential listeners are intrigued by the thought of combining poetry and music, this offers a wealth of it. The wildest form is “Stubble and Hay,” which sounds like the soundtrack for a Flannery O’Connor novel that was made into a Western. There is plenty of grit in sound and sentiment as singing collides with spoken word. This is not a typical Steve Bell song.

In stark contrast to the preceding, when Bell begins the next song with “God is everything to me/I myself can do nothing/Spare nothing, bare nothing,” it’s like following the “All is vanity” of Ecclesiastes with the sublime intimacy of the Song of Solomon. The lyrics, the vocal inflections and the graceful notes in “Birth of a Song” convey wonder and beauty.

Does having a sense of wonder matter? Without it, it’s like having eyes but not seeing, having ears but not hearing and having a heart that is lifeless. “I hear music,” said the character in the film as he tried to describe how he felt about his supposed lover. That describes the power of wonder. “Birth” makes my heart sing.

Listeners descend from that height, as they listen to King David lament in “Absalom, Absalom,” a song written by Pierce Pettis. The light acoustic touch makes this a pleasure instead of something heavy.

I cherish the opening lines, which express the desire for forgiveness: “Come and smear me/With the branches from that tree/Hyssop dipped in innocent blood/To make me clean.”

David admits that Absalom was watching when the former made a series of sinful choices. Absalom became “Caught in the tangles of deceit,” which foreshadowed his “Hanging lifeless from that tree.”

I first heard the closing “Was it a Morning Like This” on a Sandy Patty recording. Strings aside, Bell is not headed for overly inspirational territory. He succeeds in updating a well-written song that employs a device used in Scripture that here translates the joy of the Resurrection: “Did the grass sing/Did the earth rejoice to feel you again/Over and over like a trumpet underground/Did the earth seem to pound He is risen.” Creation, as a stand-in for all things, is depicted as praising God for Christ rising from the dead.  

Shortly after I wrote the first part of this piece, I came across the following in an old, forgotten devotional (author not given): “Have you ever had your sad path suddenly turned sun-shiny because of a cheerful word? Have you ever wondered if this could be the same world, because someone had been unexpectedly kind to you? You can make today the same for somebody. It is only a question of a little imagination, a little time and trouble. Think now: What can I do today to make someone happy—old persons, children, servants—even a scrap for the dog or crumbs for the bird! Why not?” I’m sure Bell will be pleased if Kindness produces the kind of softening towards ones fellows that leads toward charity.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Passionate Intellect - Alister McGrath

Pursuing a generous orthodoxy

The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind
Author: Alister McGrath
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 210

“I hate theology!” my misguided acquaintance exclaimed as we walked down a corridor of the Bayshore Mall. Immediately, I rose to the defense, “Theology is the study of God!” My words did not register in a mind that suffers from mental illness.

It’s ironic that this mall-walking friend addressed his disdain to me. Though theology can be complicated, even frustrating, I treasure it. Though it can harm when distorted or misused, and be a source of contention, it can also be a means of knowing God and His ways more perfectly. It serves as a guide to walking with Him.

My love for truth caused me to respond with joy to the prospect of reading The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath. This former atheist has a scientific/naturalist background, which makes this volume all the more remarkable. He employs his keen intellect and research skills to show that faith in God is not only rationale but capable of meeting the challenges of our day.

Comprised of previously published lectures and addresses given between late 2007 and late 2009 in various European locations, the first six chapters make a case for the relevance of Christian theology. The common theme is the intellectual credibility of the faith. It not only makes sense in itself; it “has the capacity to make sense of other aspects of reality” (12).

The last five chapters deal with cultural engagement; specifically, the natural sciences, Darwinism, and the new atheism. The summary critique of the latter will help anyone that wants to gain a quick grasp of the claims of the new atheists and McGrath’s informed responses.

Throughout the book, there is a great deal of depth stated in summary form. The writing is accessible but college level.

What makes it especially rewarding is the winsomeness with which the author makes his arguments. He does not resort to demonizing those with contrary views. He is the opposite of what well-respected Christian leader J. I. Packer calls “entrenched intellectualists—rigid, argumentative, critical Christians, champions of God’s truth for whom orthodoxy is all” (20).

His is a voice of reason as he goes on to write, “I think we all know people who seem to have an obsession with what Packer calls ‘winning the battle for moral correctness’ and little interest in any other aspect of the Christian faith. They may love God, but they seem to have problems loving other people—especially when they disagree with them. It’s not always easy to discern how this fixation on theological correctness links up with the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely the better way is to pursue a generous orthodoxy, seeing disagreements in the context of the greater agreements which bind us together?” (20).

This broadmindedness permeates this volume while holding firmly to the faith entrusted through the Scriptures. I imagine that C. S. Lewis would look kindly at McGrath’s mere theology.

It’s also noteworthy that an entire chapter is devoted to George Hebert’s “Elixir.” In recent years there has been a surge of interest and recognition of the theological richness of the poetry of Herbert (1593-1633). “Underlying Herbert’s poetry is an understanding of the role of words to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, between the believer and Christ. Herbert’s use of evocative figures of speech (tropes) allowed him to establish significant links between the secular and profane world and the core themes of the Christian faith. His genius was to offer a way of expressing these themes that was powerful and imaginative compared to the learned biblical commentaries and dense tomes of systematic theology of his age” (47).  The words of a poet can express truth in a way that captures the imagination. The hymns of John and Charles Wesley are more remembered than their sermons.

One application McGrath makes from “Elixir,” regarded as Herbert’s most beautiful work, summarizes McGrath’s view of the importance of theology: “Theology makes possible a new way of seeing things, throwing open the shutters on a world that cannot be known, experienced or encountered through human wisdom and strength alone. Christian doctrine offers us a subject worth studying in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its prism and behold our world in a new way” (52).

My friend who walks the mall does not hate God. He freely acknowledges Him. The disconnect in his mind carries over into his thinking about God and theology. In his right mind, I believe he would view the latter as a gateway to seeing reality as God intends.                                                                                                                                   

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sing Your Praises: One Thing Live

Worship that reflects God’s diverse creativity

Sing Your Praises: One Thing Live
Artist: Various                                 
Length: 12 tracks/73:42 minutes

For those not familiar with International House of Prayer (IHOP) recordings, this serves as a diverse introduction. Sing Your Praises: One Thing Live features 11 different artists leading worship in a live setting. They each have one song with the exception of Laura Hackett, who has two.

Included is “The Gift,” a closing piano ballad from Misty Edwards, who may be the most popular artist on the label. But each IHOP release that I have reviewed by other artists is similar in quality.

Part of the appeal is that they tend to be a little outside of the mainstream. These are not generic worship songs. The production values and artistry place them among the leaders in this genre.

This type of music gets its share of criticism, but I marvel at how far it has come. These IHOP releases reveal a maturity over early efforts in this field.

Frequent themes are a longing for Christ’s return, the reciprocal love between Him and His bride, the Church, and God’s majestic holiness.

If you are tempted to think, I’m more of a hymns person. I venture that Keith and Kristyn Getty, those superb modern-day hymn writers would applaud, “For I Was Far,” by Anna Blanc. If you hear it on the radio, you could think that you were hearing Kristyn. It would fit on a Getty album.

Another standout, for its uniqueness in perspective, is Jon Thurlow’s “Let Me See Your Face.” This is written and sung from God’s point of view. He woos His broken child asking that she but turn to Him. This is not Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s the weary one, his way hedged-up with thorns, hearing a voice behind him saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” God is speaking tenderly, “Just let me hear your voice.”

A favorite, for its recorder-like sound, dreamy guitar and peaceful atmosphere is Laura Hackett’s “The Love Inside.” Her other track is more dramatic, but does not have as much impact. The soft word carries more weight.

Imagine a crowded trendy club in some glamorous city, the air filled with anticipation as people wait for the show to begin. Suddenly, a DJ or master musician appears, starting the event with a high energy song. The crowd surges forward, pogo dancing in time to the throbbing beat. But something is different. There is more to this than music and dance. There are words of exaltation. The man in front is leading people in praise to God. Ascribe glory to God! That’s the setting I imagine for “Sing Your Praises” by Matt Gilman.  

I like the clear annunciation from Rachael Faagutu on the reggae-inspired “Survival Plan.” She proclaims truth about God, and her husband, Wallace, elaborates in response. Their voices join on the rapid-fire chorus. This is an artful use of a style not as common in praise and worship.

“We Make Room” by Jaye Thomas, which features The Cry, is decidedly gospel. Other tracks border on alt-rock.

This release certainly reflects the creative diversity that God has shared with the human race. He could have made just one variety of apples. Instead, we have many, and that is just one fruit. In a similar way, He allows a multitude of expressions and the use of creativity in worship. It’s all for the purpose of magnifying His glory.

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness (Psalm 29:1-2 ESV).

Michael Dalton

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s - Tom Doyle

A realistic, non-critical, snapshot of a pivotal time in the life of a Beatle

Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s
Author: Tom Doyle
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 230

I have a question for fans of The Beatles, and Paul McCartney in particular, who are readers. This is directed at those who have read some or many of the volumes pertaining to the Fab Four. What is the best book on Sir Paul?

Though Man on the Run by Tom Doyle is limited in scope, roughly covering the 1970s, it deserves a place in the pantheon of Beatles’ books. Chief among the reasons is Tom Doyle, who had unprecedented access to McCartney, and more than lives up to his reputation as a sterling music journalist. He is a long-standing contributing editor to Q, and his work has also appeared in Mojo and various publications.

McCartney may have warmed to Doyle being Scottish. McCartney enjoyed “a decades-long relationship with the country,” which is explored here, beginning with the purchase of High Park Farm and the Bohemian lifestyle that evolved from it. 

Doyle combines personal interviews and source material into a succinct but detailed narrative account of the aftermath of The Beatles, specifically McCartney’s journey to establishing a new identity. Doyle makes it a fascinating read, one that is hard to put down, and one that you want to continue.

The story provides the context for every recording from McCartney (1970) to Tug of War (1982). There is brief analysis of missteps, some bizarre, and successes. Much of the latter emerges after the birth of Wings, where McCartney reached another pinnacle. The eventual demise of Wings is also included with perspective from former members.

Scattered throughout are accounts of McCartney’s on and off relationship with John Lennon, who, as is known, could be quite surly. Nevertheless, McCartney could take solace in Lennon’s last words on their collaboration, “‘There’s only been two artists I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand as it were,’ he said. ‘That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko. I think that’s a pretty damn good choice. As a talent scout, I’ve done pretty damn well’” (203). Yoko also assured McCartney, telling him “how warmly John had often talked about him in private” (205).

The author provides a poignant account of the impact of Lennon’s death on McCartney. In the aftermath, he was engulfed by a range of emotions that hung like clouds over his mind. It taught him an important lesson: “I’ll never fall out with anyone again in my life for that amount of time and face the possibility of them dying before I get a chance to square with them,” McCartney confided to Denny Laine (205).

Details like this make the book an enriching read. Though it does not always cast McCartney in a favorable light, it feels authentic, getting past the legend and closer to knowing McCartney as he is. Prior to this I had only read a couple of books about The Beatles, but it’s hard to imagine a better one covering this segment of McCartney’s career. He can point to this with satisfaction, recognizing a realistic, non-critical, snapshot of a pivotal time in his life and career.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium (Apostolic Exhortation) - Francis

Surprised by Francis

The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium (Apostolic Exhortation)
Author: Francis (As listed on title page)
Publisher: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Pages: 152

I share the interest of many in Francis, the simple designation the Pope uses in the Joy of the Gospel, which has an appropriate subtitle, Apostolic Exhortation. Fitting because, being addressed to Catholics from lay people to leaders, it’s a challenging call to live the life of Christ in every dimension for the sake of evangelization.

This is far from a how-to-win-souls book. Rather, it’s remarkable for its comprehension of the all-encompassing nature of evangelism, elevating it above drudgery to joy, which is as it should be. Those seeking a fresh vision can find it here under the following broad headings:

1.       The Church’s Missionary Transformation
2.       Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment
3.       The Proclamation of the Gospel
4.       The Social Dimension of Evangelization
5.       Spirit-Filled Evangelizers

Francis may not be thought of as an academic like his predecessor—on the basis of what I had read and heard I was expecting folksy inspiration along the lines of his namesake. What a surprise to find such a scholarly outlook filled with practical directives that even I as an evangelical can apply to my own life.

The simple writing style is an encouragement to me personally. I’m not verbose and neither is Francis. He gets to the point with hardly a wasted word.

Each chapter is organized under sub-heads that have numbered sections containing an average of one to four short paragraphs. The sections are consecutively numbered from the beginning of the book.

There is treasure in readily accessible form in each of these 288 divisions. I could revisit them repeatedly and be enriched each time.

The author only lost me with an occasional reference to the Eucharist and in the concluding part that deals with Mary. The latter was a slight let down.

I realize that some might not even consider this volume because of their differences with the Catholic Church. If, however, one approaches it with an open mind to glean what is helpful rather than reading to find fault, one can be the wiser for it. I don’t want to be too proud to learn from anyone. That’s not to say there is no need for discernment.

It’s the capacity that one needs when reading N. T. Wright, John MacArthur, and one of my favorites, F. W. Boreham, or any other author. We grow in our ability to separate the wheat from the chaff in part by being exposed to views that differ from our own. Sometimes we need the help of contemporaries and/or ancients to help us find our way. This is part of the value of reading books.

Whatever we think we know, in a sense we know it imperfectly. I am wrong without realizing it. I fail in many ways and see imperfectly. It’s why we need to evaluate and avail ourselves of resources that God provides.    

There is one book that towers over and has inspired this and countless others in Christendom. If we have time for nothing else, the Bible must be our lodestar. Everything else must stand in the light of it.

In the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Image, Kathleen Norris writes, “However the cultural winds are blowing, I believe that the task for artists of faith is the same as it has always been. Whether or not the culture accepts their work, their job is to reject the false and seek the true; to shun sentiment and formulaic happy endings in favor of passion and surprise” (83). Francis may not be considered an artist, but in this work he rejects the false and seeks the true. He shuns sentiment and formulaic answers. He writes with passion and surprise, which makes this a joy to read.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sovereign - Michael W. Smith

A new label, a new dynamic

Artist: Michael W. Smith (
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 12 tracks/54:33 minutes

Michael W. Smith is a musical virtuoso, but he may never be more dynamic than when he leads worship. Look no further than Sovereign, which is his latest and finest effort in this category. I might take this over any of his previous releases.

These songs are straightforward with restrained artistry, giving them broad appeal.

They exude the power that comes from combining rock and worship. The choruses are like the roar of many waters! The God of glory thunders and so does the music in the crescendos. In contrast, it is often like a gentle whisper at beginning and end when it’s little more than just Smith and a piano. I like hearing his earnestness and tenderness to sparse accompaniment.

Credit is due in part to partnership with a new label, Capitol Christian Music Group. Smith wisely chose to be open to input and direction, knowing that iron sharpens iron.   

Though it is a studio recording, it has the vitality of the live recordings that our popular in this genre. It’s easy to imagine it being performed in arenas filled with throngs of people singing along. It rivals its secular counterparts because of its object. The sense of majesty is but the dim reflection of God’s awesome glory, which is beyond description.

One of five cover songs is “Christ Be All Around Me.” It’s an excellent adaptation with a chorus derived from early Irish poetry:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

It serves as a lovely reminder of the pervasiveness of God’s presence.

Two of my favorites, “Hide Myself” and “You Won’t Let Go,” are collaborations with a couple of the best songwriters in Christian music, Mia Fields and Seth Mosley. These songs are such a winsome blend of pop, praise and comfort. Does it anyone do it better than Smith?

I like the closing duet with Kari Jobe (“The One That Really Matters”), but it is a little long and repetitive. It detracts somewhat from the powerful thought that in the end, pleasing God is all that matters.

Sovereign debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. Just prior to this, Smith and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store released Hymns, Smith’s take on classic hymnody. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay - Ken Mansfield

The only book approved by The Beatles

The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay (
Author: Ken Mansfield
Publisher: Broadman & Holman Publishers
Pages: 299

“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 ESV). In The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay (2000), Ken Mansfield, in writing about another Beatle insider book, said, “My greatest objection was the dark-side approach he (Peter Brown) took to events and the Beatles themselves. I think there must have been two John Lennons—I never met his!” (92). This is indicative of Mansfield’s viewpoint and what makes his book a delight.

His approach becomes even clearer when he describes the forces that eroded the band’s “childlike quality,” which he saw as “a common thread that ran through the very fiber and being of the Fab Four.” Mansfield writes, “My eternal naiveté and potato-bred simplicity saved me. I looked for and only found their goodness and gentle natures. I found them idealistic and still able to dream, vaguely unaware that they were being pulled into an externally induced nightmare” (243-244).

Their musical prowess made Mansfield into an awe-inspired friend. He admits that “he may have even forgotten what I don’t want to remember.” He knew that they liked him and was protective as a result. “I do know that they trusted me, and in order to dig up dirt or caustic observations about these times and these people, I would either have to become a fiction writer or betray that trust,” (245) he explains.

Even in relation to John Lennon, he offers a counter view to his much publicized caustic side. “It is unfortunate, but I fear most people never got to see the casual, lightness-of-being aspect of John Lennon. I am personally offended by the disproportionate amount of negative verbiage written about other areas of his brilliant life” (220).

It’s no wonder that this is the only book ever approved by The Beatles (Yoko One on John Lennon’s behalf). It’s honest and revealing without being critical.

Readers get warm glimpses not found elsewhere: “Life with George in these situations was always comfortable and natural, almost everyday like; he made it that way. He was easy to be with—gentle, kind, and caring. Although I was supposed to be taking care of him, he would always concern himself with how I was doing. He had a bashful, soft-spoken manner with friend and stranger alike, and always appeared to care about others” (137).

Ken Mansfield is the former U.S. manager of Apple Records. That’s him huddling from the cold against the chimney between Yoko and Maureen Starkey when the Beatles gave their final performance on that rooftop. 

Despite the weather and a host of adverse circumstances, it was a triumph that led Mansfield to conclude, “After thirty years in the heart of the record business—offstage, onstage, and backstage with everyone from Roy Orbison to Don Ho—I personally feel that the Beatles were the greatest rock and roll band of all time” (110). Mansfield sees it as the “one event that stood out above all the others during the time” (105) that he worked with the Beatles.

It would be disingenuous to let someone think that the book is merely recollections about The Beatles. Sandwiched in between these wondrous accounts are dispatches, some 20-30 years later, from Bodega Bay, known as the setting for Alfred’s Hitchcock’s The Birds. Far from the dread and fear in that movie are the serene Christian reflections inspired by the natural beauty of the fishing village’s coastline.

These are not lightweight devotionals. It’s a mature Christian seeing God’s hand in all the created wonder that surrounds him. They are much like the Psalms, expressing a full range of human emotions.

At first the transition from one time period to another can be a little jarring, and depending on preference, one can easily want to get through the sections they like least, but that would miss the beauty found each and not see this as a whole. It is a journey from the pinnacles of the music world to the riches of a life lived simply in Christ.

The book features many rare photos and images from Mansfield’s time with the group, along with timelines in the chapters showing significant dates of recordings and other events.

Mansfield also wrote The White Book, The Beatles, the Bands, the Biz: An Insider’s Look at an Era (2007), Between Wyomings: My God and an iPod on the Open Road (2009) and Stumbling on Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer, and Rock 'n' Roll (2013).

Mansfield humanizes The Beatles in a winsome way. This is far removed from the books that disillusion and dissipate hope. These gracious words are sweet to the soul and health to mind and body.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Permeable Life - Carrie Newcomer

Miracles and magic in everyday life

A Permeable Life
Artist: Carrie Newcomer (
Label: Available Light Records
Length: 12 tracks/48 minutes

It’s my loss that Carrie Newcomer’s twelfth studio recording is only my second meeting, the first being The Geography of Light (2008). I have been enriched by each visit, which leads me to believe that becoming acquainted with her other works will bring further delight. If Newcomer is a stranger but you enjoy someone like David Wilcox, take the time to listen to the beauty and depth that this artist offers.

You might find yourself captivated by “Writing You a Letter” on A Permeable Life. The song conveys a sense of awe and mystery, especially in the music. Acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, light percussion and violin combine in a way that hints at what is below the surface. Newcomer sings, “I’m a stranger here, I’m only passing through/But every place I go leaves its own tattoo,” while the chugging pace provides a sense of journey. This train is bound for glory but don’t expect to remain unchanged along the way.

The sublime sounds make the world seem rife with possibilities. It is my favorite track for the feeling that it conveys. It’s not often that a song can help me experience what cannot be completely named. It’s “miracles and magic.”

Actually, you find similar moments throughout this release. I know that along with stellar musicianship it is Newcomer’s Quaker background that brings such richness. The lovely prose and melodies are enhanced by the finger-picking that drives these songs.

Newcomer lightens the mood on “Room at the Table,” which invites all to partake of a bounty enough for everyone. “Forever Ray” celebrates a lifelong love that endures through the sunset years. The closing “Please Don’t Put Me on Hold” is Newcomer’s humor in full bloom. Anyone who has endured automated answering systems should be able to relate. 

As I write these next words, it is now the early hours of Easter. Christ rose not as a mere phantom but as flesh and blood. This has ever been the hope of the follower of Jesus: the resurrection of the body!

Christianity is incarnate from Advent to the empty tomb. It is concrete spirituality in the form of relationship. I find these two aspects beautifully embodied on “Abide,” the perfect end of day song.

The chorus invites shared presence: “Oh abide with me/Where it’s breathless and its empty/Yes abide with me/And we’ll pass the evening gently/Stay awake with me/And we’ll listen more intently/To something wordless and remaining/Sure and ever changing/In the quietness of now.” What is sure and ever changing? “There is living water/A spirit cutting through/Always changing, always making/All things new.”

Newcomer never needs to preach. Throughout this release she sets her faith in the context of human interactions. It’s delicately worked into every line of struggles and joys. This is not rugged individualism but a lifestyle built on the revelation disclosed in “Visitation” that there “is a hope that won’t let go.” It dawned on Resurrection Sunday and shines to the full light of day.

Lately, I have moments where I long for a renewed sense of wonder. Such a desire is continually obscured by the pace of life and the world’s many distractions. Newcomer’s work is like an ally helping me to find meaning not only in the burning bush but in every grain of sand. Let me be awe-inspired even in the commonplace. As Newcomer puts it, “To live permeably is to be open-hearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

Love Will Have the Final Word - Jason Gray

When the ruins are all we see … It only means love isn’t finished yet

Love Will Have the Final Word 
Artist: Jason Gray (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 11 songs/42 minutes

In the CCM 35th Anniversary Issue, TobyMac, formerly of dcTalk, said, “One of the things we lose perspective of is how needy we are.” One reason why I like Love Will Have the Final Word and each of Jason Gray’s releases is that he continually reminds me of my need for grace.

One obvious example is “Don’t Know How,” where someone could mistakenly interpret the opening lines as a before Christ experience. Rather, when Gray sings, “I want to believe but I don’t know how/Trust what I can’t see but I don’t know how,” he is recognizing his utter dependence on God, particularly when “baptized in the burning flame/when the troubles come my way.”

The distorted background, sounding like tranquilized grunge, complements the desperation in the lyrics and vocal delivery: “I have no choice but to cry out for you/Please help ’cause I’m helpless now.” I relate to this brokenness and the longing for wholeness, more than unattainable perfection.

If we read to know that we are not alone, the same can apply to listening. On the title track, when Gray sings, “When the voice of fear rages in my head/Reading down a long list of my regret/When the ruins are all I see/Remind me that it only means love isn’t finished speaking yet.” It helps me to know that I am not the only one to see the ruins. I need the reminder that “As long as God is on His throne/I am carried by the hope that love will have the final word.” Haunting, echoing guitar lines add an ethereal quality.

One could easily conclude that this life is characterized by sorrow, but joy will not be absent on the morning when we wake from the slumber of the world’s long night. In the eternal scheme, joy is deeper than sorrow.

One might not think that a song with the phrase “Ha Ha” would even fit, much less convey a real sense of joy. But the opening, exuberant “Laugh Out Loud” makes it work with handclaps, mandolin, and is that the sound of a hammer dulcimer? Let me underscore: it’s no small thing to find hints of heaven in a song. This puts a smile on my face. It’s like Gray is singing, “Spring up, o well (of bliss), within my soul.” If all this isn’t enough, it’s topped off by a chorus of hearty whistling.

This is followed by “With Every Act of Love,” a similar-sounding track with a larger than life chorus of “ohs” that leads me to anoint Gray as a king of the monosyllables. This is the soundtrack for when “heaven touches earth.” As Gray sings on the bridge, “God put a million, million doors in the world for His love to walk through/One of the doors is you.” This is a triumphant vision of God’s kingdom being brought to the world through every act of love. The recording is worth having just for these first two songs alone.

If a song can awaken compassion and encourage people to be tenderhearted, it is “If You Want to Love Someone.” Gray fleshes-out what it looks like when he sings, “Somehow you had a way of seeing just how deep my wound could go/Oh, but you were never scared to run and meet me there/That’s how I know/If you want to love someone/Search their soul for where it’s broken/Find the cracks and pour your heart in/That’s what You did.” It may be his way of saying that God met him at the point of his greatest sorrow and need. It’s an example of how through developing trust we can help the hurting.

“The Best Days of My Life” is Gray at his autobiographical best. It brims with hope as do most of these tracks. Need encouragement? You can find it here.

I appreciate the cover of a vigilant, bow-tie clad Gray, clouds and sky in the background, holding a broken pot together, which contains a beautiful bloom. It reminds me of the Heavenly Father, Who ever mindful of our fragile estate, loves us as we are and not as we should be (“As I Am”). He holds us when our world comes apart.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Table in the Darkness: A Healing Journey through an Eating Disorder - Lee Wolfe Blum

What recovery looks like

Table in the Darkness: A Healing Journey through an Eating Disorder
Author: Lee Wolfe Blum
Publisher: IVP Crescendo (
Pages: 200

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head (William Cowper).

Though inwardly compelled to make the review request, it was with a sense of dread that I approached Table in the Darkness by Lee Wolfe Blum. Even though many years ago I read with interest and benefit Starving for Attention by Cherry Boone O’Neill, I was slightly fearful of immersing myself once again in the throes of an eating disorder. But like the lines from the stanza by William Cowper, my fears proved groundless. Those clouds of dread were quickly dissipated as I became engrossed in a story big with mercy that brought blessing instead of condemnation.

It may be cliché, but nevertheless true, that this story is not as much about eating as it is about intangibles that shape us more than we realize. The disorder is a symptom of the lack of love and acceptance that we all crave but ultimately can only be found in an intimate relationship with God. Wolfe’s disorder was a flawed coping mechanism used to numb her pain.

It was an alter-ego that could bring a measure of comfort but increasingly became dominant “Ed was mean and brutal, no longer a friend; he was now a warden in my prison of his making. He was demanding and would say anything to keep me trapped. I no longer had a voice to fight back, with Ed’s voice so much louder” (104). This recounting of her self-talk, a major part of her struggle, is insightful.

While this is “raw, real and revealing,” as Cherry Boone O’Neill writes on the back cover, it’s a story told with dignity. It’s not gross or too graphic. It is, however, told with so much honesty and recollection of detail that this will be more than a little helpful for anyone with an interest in this area.

I did not want to read more than a chapter a day, so that I might prolong and savor the experience. I don’t want to narrate the particulars, better to let Blum tell it. I extend to potential readers something that I enjoy: the element of surprise.

This is not primarily self-help or a clinical evaluation; although the last chapter does provide details of what Blum’s recovery looked like. The points she enumerates are challenging but essential. Prior to this, it remains a narrative of the highs and lows of her life from childhood to the present. It includes a love story and the important roles played by family and friends.   

By illustrating from her life in a truthful manner rather than just telling what a person with an eating disorder should do, the author lets readers make their own connections and applications. When someone artfully presents reality, it can be like looking in a mirror. I, therefore, see how I am and how I might need to change.

This volume almost never came into being, and what a pity if that had been the case. It’s an extremely helpful and hope-filled book. I’m thankful for author’s vulnerability and the publisher’s willingness to put this amazing redemption story into print.

I note in passing that this is under a new imprint, IVP Crescendo. I heartily applaud the expressed intent: “IVP Crescendo is a new line that celebrates the significant and serendipitous results that arise wherever women apply their vision and gifts to the good of the whole church.” I will be interested to see and perhaps review what other titles spring from this line. Ladies, may I suggest that you keep your eye on their webpage.

I almost missed the grace found here because of those clouds of dread. I need to remember: there is no fear in love! Don’t shy away from this one. Any clouds of reluctance may be the precursor to God’s fullness raining down. 

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