Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why I Am a Christian - John Stott

With gentleness and respect Stott makes the case for being a Christ follower

Why I Am a Christian
Author: John Stott
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (
Pages: 140

Eloquent and bold, Why I Am Not a Christian, caused a stir on March 6, 1927. Thirty years later mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell’s lecture became the first chapter in a book with the same title.

Rather than being a refutation of Russell’s address, Why I Am a Christian by John Stott seeks to make the case for Christianity through Scripture, testimony and reasoning.

Stott’s starting point may come as a surprise as he attributes the initiative “to Jesus Christ himself, who pursued me relentlessly even when I was running away from him in order to go my own way. And if it was not for the gracious pursuit of the Hound of Heaven I would today be on the scrapheap of wasted and discarded lives” (14-15). Stott goes on to briefly trace God’s pursuit in the lives of Saul of Tarsus, Augustine, Malcolm Muggeridge and C. S. Lewis.

The next chapter examines the claims of Christ and reaches a conclusion similar to that of C. S. Lewis, “The claims of Jesus are either true or false. If they are false, they could be deliberately false (in which case he was a liar, an impostor), or they could be involuntarily false (in which case he was deluded). Yet neither possibility appears likely” (44).

The third chapter explains the significance of Christ’s death. This leads to a look at human depravity. In conclusion Stott writes, “It is clear therefore from this that we have a double need: on the one hand cleansing from defilement, and on the other a new heart with new desires and aspirations. And to me it is truly wonderful that both these are offered to us in the gospel. For Christ died to make us clean, and by the inward working of his Holy Spirit he can make us new” (78-79).

This kind of brevity, clarity and simplicity make this a joy to read. Stott accurately summarizes Christian teaching in engaging ways. He masterfully draws upon theology, history, literature and pop culture to illustrate.

The last three chapters on freedom, fulfillment and a free invitation may be the strongest. He is at the height of his powers as he writes about how the deepest longings are satisfied through God’s great provisions.

Some of these magnificent truths appear contradictory. How can surrender bring freedom? Stott writes, “The burden we lose when we come to Christ is heavy, whereas his burden, he said, is ‘light.’ Again, the yoke we lose when we come to Christ is a misfit; it chafes on our shoulders. But the yoke we gain is ‘easy’; it is a perfect fit. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ How is this? I think it is that both our mind and our will find their freedom under the authority of Christ. The only authority under which our mind is genuinely free is the authority of truth” (128).  

Stott is not as well-known in the US and he is in the UK, his homeland. Thankfully, IVP Books is helping to rectify this by publishing his books once again.

Prior to his death in 2011, he was widely recognized as an outstanding ambassador of the Christian faith. He spoke and wrote truth in a dignified and respectful way just as he does in this book.

I have yet to read a book by him that is not informative, encouraging and challenging. This volume will be useful to anyone wishing to understand the foundational reasons for being a Christian.

Stott makes it personal, which is appropriate. Scripture is meant to be lived, and Stott nobly exemplified that high ideal.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

One More Step - Lindsay McCaul

One More Step, McCaul’s sophomore effort, is a brilliant combination of authentic faith and sophisticated pop.

One More Step
Artist: Lindsay McCaul (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 11 tracks/41:06 minutes

When I listen to One More Step by Lindsay McCaul I think of Sara Bareilles. In part it’s because Bareilles comes from my hometown, Eureka, CA, but more significantly, McCaul’s style and sound are reminiscent of the intelligent, well-produced, mostly keyboard and program-driven pop that you find with Bareilles.

McCaul may never sell as many albums, but it’s not for lack of talent. One More Step is rich in a spiritual maturity that is not common among mainstream artists. If the lyrics are any indication, McCaul is “all-in.”

God is not some afterthought. Let me illustrate it like this: Eureka is known for its Rhododendrons. It’s not like McCaul just happens to have one growing in her yard. It’s more like she is an organizer of our annual Rhododendron parade. You could think of her as an ambassador for the Maker of Rhododendrons in all their glory.

She faithfully represents God’s compassion toward His fallen creatures. One of the most memorable moments is “With the Broken Hearted,” a duet with Brandon Heath. This is sparse and acoustic with vocals that are beautifully pensive.

McCaul processes the grief of losing her father on the title track. She recalls the milestones that they shared together noting that each one was a step of faith. This song takes the sting out of death by illustrating that the God who sees His children through every event is the same God who waits with open arms as we take that final step.

“Mess Like Me” is self-deprecating honesty and a light-hearted melody. It’s just singing backed by strumming on what sound likes a mandolin. It’s glorious simplicity and it highlights the singer’s vulnerability. She’s not afraid to share her struggles and failures on this recording, which makes it highly relatable.  It’s a comfort to know that we all fall short in many ways.

“You thought it could not get any worse, (and) then it did,” is the opening line for “Love Won’t Give Up.” The lines are framed by soft percussion and a haunting piano melody. Love serves here as a personification for God. The song offers plenty of reassurance: “You are not hopeless/You have not fallen somewhere beyond its reach/Love comes to heal, restore what’s been broken.”

When Sara Bareilles schedules a concert in the Eureka area, it sells out quickly. I have not had the privilege of attending one, but if I have the opportunity, I would like to hear a Lindsay McCaul concert in my hometown. One More Step, her sophomore effort, is a brilliant combination of authentic faith and sophisticated pop.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spirit of Christmas - Michael W. Smith & Friends

Christmas is like a well from which Smith continually draws majesty, wonder and beauty, and also a sense of nostalgia.

The Spirit of Christmas
Artist: Michael W. Smith & Friends
Label: Sparrow Records (Universal)
Length: 14 tracks/47:28 minutes

After three Christmas albums, one might think Michael W. Smith had done enough in a market segment even more disposable than pop music. This past December as I sorted through a mass of Christmas records in a Thrift store, the collector next to me commented that he listened to Christmas music just one day of the year. It was obvious that it had little value for him. Of course, I refrained from judging him and trying to persuade him that Christmas music includes some of the most exquisite ever created. 

Those tempted to think that someone like Michael W. Smith might be done with Christmas after three albums may not realize that this season brings out the best in him. It’s like an inexhaustible well that he draws from to create majesty, wonder and beauty. He is not alone! Jeff Johnson is another that truly stands out. Give any of his Christmas recordings a try.

On The Spirit of Christmas Michael W. Smith does it again in a new way. He collaborates with well-known, accomplished artists, many of them connected with country music, on a series of duets.

Don’t get the idea that the many country artists make this that type of an album. Smith especially aims for nostalgia on the first part of this recording. Backed by an orchestra providing some swing, Smith croons his way through “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Happy Holidays/Holiday Season.” The latter faithfully reproduces the echoing refrain found in the title, which has become so familiar to me through working retail during the Christmas season.

My experience of being subjected in retail to non-stop Christmas music gives me a unique perspective. As much as I like it, and as much as I might be opposed to torture, interrogating our enemies with non-stop Christmas music similar to the retail variety may be more humane than present means and accomplish desired ends more quickly. In particular, a Dixieland rendition of “Jingle Bells” may be singularly effective. The combination of tuba and a high-pitched brass instrument gets me every time.

Most of the Christmas recordings that I have are by Christian artists, and they have not included “Happy Holidays” and “White Christmas,” so I’m delighted to have excellent versions here. Just the other day I started to sing “White Christmas” while I was driving down the road. That would not have happened if I had not been listening to Lady Antebellum and Smith singing of snow, something I rarely see in coastal Eureka.

These classics might not have the spiritual content of the others, but they stand the test of time because they are so well-written. I appreciate the good will that permeates these songs. They are like a light against the darkness, bidding me to be of good cheer. 

The last half of the recording dives deeply into the spiritual side of the season. This includes “Almost There,” with Amy Grant. You don’t hear from Smith until he begins to gently echo the refrain on the second stanza. It’s such a beautiful entry for his voice, which complements Grant’s earnestness. Grant and Smith have had many wonderful moments together, and this has to be one of their finest. They co-wrote this new song with Wes King. It is of the same magnitude as Grant’s “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” and covers similar theological ground.

All of the females, including those from Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, plus Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Nettles are angelic and powerful. They are a wonderful supplement and contrast to Smith.

The guys are represented by Vince Gill on “Christmas Time is Here,” a favorite song thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Bono of U2 fame has a short, spoken word segment titled “The Darkest Midnight.” Alas, iTunes won’t permit this as a separate download from the album. Bono’s voice never rises much above a whisper. Ethereal-sounding Celtic music provides an appropriate backdrop for this Christmas benediction.

Michael McDonald provides background vocals on “Peace,” an appropriate final track. It’s a plea for grace! It’s an acknowledgement that peace is only found in Christ.

2014 was a productive year for Smith with three releases: Hymns, Sovereign and The Spirit of Christmas.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Johannine Theology: the Gospel, the Epistles and the Apocalypse - Paul A. Rainbow

Who can find a finer resource on the writings of John?

Johannine Theology: the Gospel, the Epistles and the Apocalypse
Author: Paul A. Rainbow
Publisher: IVP Academic (
Pages: 496

I hope that I am not the only one who can look forward to reading a nearly 500 page book on theology. Why would anyone enjoy such an undertaking? Well, for one, you don’t find this level of scholarship and exposition in the average pulpit and in best-selling titles.

It’s what I treasure most in Johannine Theology by Paul A. Rainbow. For example, his thoughts on John 6 alone, where Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, make reading the book worthwhile. I recall a Catholic friend telling me that a priest had done a study on this section, which might help me to better understand the passage. Though I declined the opportunity to hear the message, I doubt these words refer to receiving communion.  

Rainbow provides an excellent overview of this section of Scripture, which I believe gets at the real meaning. In summary, he states, “To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, then, is to believe in him, specifically as the divine sent one who will give his flesh and blood for the life of the world” (218). As indicated by the context, to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood is synonymous with having faith in Him.

What causes my heart to rejoice is not in finding an interpretation that reinforces my own belief, but in discovering exposition that gets at the heart of what Jesus meant. Readers consistently get sound exegesis like this throughout the book. I can’t imagine a finer volume that is equally as comprehensive and readable.

Perhaps the biggest possible stumbling block is Rainbow’s assumption that the apostle John is the author of the gospel and the three epistles that bear his name, and Revelation, or the Apocalypse as Rainbow prefers to call it. Some scholars do not accept this premise of John being the sole author of each of these works. In defense of the author, he provides an overview of the debate and analysis.

Regardless, Rainbow remarkably demonstrates the interconnectedness that he finds between each of these works. Even if one does not accept his premise, there is much that one can learn from his doctrinal analysis and summaries.

Fittingly, for one reviewing the writings of the apostle who includes love as one of his themes, Rainbow organizes his analysis in terms of relationships. He writes in the Introduction (chap. 1), “Accordingly, the following chapters will explore Johannine thought by concentrating on God the Father (chap. 2), the world-system (chap. 3), God’s self-revelation in the Son (chaps. 4-5), the Spirit-Paraclete (6), the believer united to the risen Christ (chaps. 7-8), and believers in relation to one another (chap. 9) and to the world (chap. 10)” (32).  There is much here about God and the interrelatedness of the members in the Trinity for those wanting to know more about God’s character.

Indexes of principal scripture passages, authors and subjects are included in the back of the book, which makes this a useful reference. It’s a phenomenal read but serves best as a resource.

Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey

“Make way for Mr. Bell, please.” Isn’t that Bob Bennett carrying his luggage?

Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey – A Feature Documentary DVD
Publisher: Refuge 31 Films
Length: 97 minutes plus a bonus CD containing 14 songs spanning Bell’s career

“How did they not make it? What didn’t he do?” Immediately these questions are raised in Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey – A Feature Documentary.

They have been asked before in relation to other artists who, like Bell, have not had a commercial breakthrough in the US. Cliff Richard has sold more than 250 million records worldwide, but in this country his name is not a household word. American musician Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, achieved rock star status in South Africa but has sold comparatively few albums in the US.

Steve Bell, a native of Canada, is among the best-known Christian artists in that country and holds numerous awards. Yet, despite widespread critical acclaim he is little know here. 

This Refuge 31 Films DVD explores why that might be, tracing his career from the early days of singing and performing with his family to the present day.

The producers follow Bell as he tours through the US, faithfully performing to small crowds, whereas artists of seemingly lesser talent play for thousands.

Camera shots of set-up and take-down frame brief concert clips that include not only songs but also dialogue. These segments highlight Bell’s penchant for storytelling. The humor and authenticity are apparent and winsome.

At one point, he recalls the time when he endeavored to leave music for more gainful employment. After all, he had a family to support! His discovery and admission that he was completely unemployable is funny and endearing.

His wife went to work while he imagined his young children occupying themselves while he gave himself to quiet times of songwriting. The unreality of it all quickly dawned on him.

His candid disclosures about trials and failures are admirable. His audiences are the richer for his humility.

Even though Bell and manager/administrator Dave Zeglinski are able to tour economically by going on the road by themselves, the DVD suggests that this is no longer sustainable to the degree done in the past. Now in his early fifties, viewers see Bell meeting with strategists planning his future. A consensus emerges that performance alone is not enough. Writing must supplement and become a new vehicle for his career to flourish. Bell has just released Christmastide the third e-Book in this collection of PilgrimYear reflections. He plans to release a hardback in 2015.

This video provides a gallery view of Bell’s 18 albums, giving brief insight into the making of each one. Also shown are glimpses of the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, playing Massey Hall with a symphony orchestra. This led to a series of similar performances across Canada, which is quite remarkable. Not too many artists have the privilege of touring with a national orchestra.

Lastly, as important as commercial success can be to maintain longevity, towards the end viewers get an alternative view of a career like Bell’s. Whereas Searching for Sugar Man moved me to tears over someone finally getting some of their just rewards, Steve Bell’s story causes me to consider faithfulness to calling, a better measure of success. Integrity involves refusing to deviate from what we know to do. Viewers see this trajectory in Bell’s life.  

His commitment has produced artistry with depth and genuine care for his fans. Bell recalls the time when he judged a lyric too overt for the segment of his audience that might not share his faith. Concern like this is rare.

Artists like Steve Bell, Sixto Rodriguez and Cliff Richard remind us that character is more important than recognition and earthly rewards. However one might imagine what a Christian artist should be, it looks at least in part, like what we see in this DVD.  

One of the highest and funniest accolades comes from Bob Bennett who wants to be the guy who carries Steve Bell’s luggage. “Make way for Mr. Bell, please.”   

We live in a day when some consumers have become more intentional about what their purchases support. Having seen Bell in concert and met him personally, this documentary captures the essence of a man dedicated to making a difference that has eternal ramifications. Those who share his faith would do well to consider supporting his ministry. Expect mutual enrichment.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

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