Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pilgrimage - Steve Bell

Pilgrimage is a journey worth taking.  

Artist: Steve Bell (www.stevebell.com)
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 (www.ivpress.com)
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 subscriptions.englewoodreview.org.

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