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

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

Christians making music for the many rather than the few Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil’s Music Auth...