Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Stories - Jenny & Tyler


Recapturing childlike wonder

Christmas Stories
Artist: Jenny & Tyler (www.jennyandtyler.com)
Length: 9 songs/35 minutes
Label: Residence Music

On Christmas Stories Jenny & Tyler succeed in making eight classics and one new song their own. The opening “Christmastime” is an original written by Jenny, Tyler and Trent Monk. Among the many seasonal references the song expresses the hope of finding childlike wonder. With the help of producer Ben Shive this is what the album accomplishes.

As with several of the songs there is a classic feel with a light jazz backing. This, however, is not the whole story.

The fourth track, “The Maker of the Sun and Moon,” an old British hymn, has a markedly different sound. It’s more like a soft rock anthem. It has a driving rhythm that is propelled by light percussion and strumming with some beautiful acoustic accents.

It also marks the turn to praise and worship:

     O Perfect Love
     Outpassing Sight
     O Brilliant One
     O Radiant Light

The chorus above may represent Jenny & Tyler’s contribution as they share the credit for the songwriting.

Again, there is somewhat of a change-up on the next song, “O Holy Night.” Jenny sings the first part like a tender lullaby with just sparse instrumentation before Tyler joins in with a fuller sound. The background is somewhat ethereal, which is a welcome change from over-produced versions. Too much production is not a problem on this release.

It would be easy to overlook the two instrumentals because they are short in length. That would be a mistake. Together they provide a tender, magical interlude and an elegant benediction.

“Handel’s Messiah” is the longest track, being a medley of highlights from the famous piece. The arrangements are different enough to enable the listener to experience this anew. Overly familiar pieces don’t require as much attention. This had me listening more carefully, and I was impressed by how the different parts present the complete story of Christ, from before His advent to His exaltation.

“White Christmas” is a delight with initially just acoustic guitar backing. As with “I’ll Be Home” the pace is relaxed. The words and sounds are crystalline.

This is the first time Ben Shive has worked with Jenny & Tyler but not his first Christmas effort. Together they have done a marvelous job of helping listeners feel a bit of wonder through a variety of styles.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wonder - Jean Watson



Can a finer tribute to “Hallelujah” be found?

Wonder
Artist: Jean Watson (www.jeanwatson.com)
Label: Suite 28 Records
Length: 11 tracks/44 minutes

With the recent passing of Leonard Cohen, the instrumental of “Hallelujah,” a bonus track on Wonder by Jean Watson, serves as an elegant tribute. The violin playing is exquisite.

Unfortunately, the song is only available on iTunes. Then again, better there than not at all. It’s one of the finer moments.

Back to the violin. It is not only proficient but soothing throughout, whether the style is traditional Celtic or contemporary expressions of devotion and worship. By the latter, I don’t mean the type sung in modern worship circles. This is never that.

This is closer to classical and folk in the singer/songwriter style.

Though the violin is often heard, it’s not overdone. Keyboards are also prominent. There are snatches of stylish guitar playing, and light, mostly programmed percussion. Watson’s voice adds a delicate beauty. Neither she nor the instrumentation is overpowering.

The mood ranges from peaceful to worshipful and joyful. Serene also comes to mind.

“It is Well” is an original that segues into the chorus of the popular hymn that has the same familiar words in the title.

“Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” is indicative of the Celtic influence heard more or less throughout. This is the version that includes the chorus written by Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio, and made popular by the former.

A beautiful guitar-driven version of the Matt Redman song, “Blessed be Your Name” is also included. Aside from the standards, most of the tracks are original.

I like the space between the notes. They have room to breathe. It’s not cluttered. It makes for a restful, God-centered experience.

I also appreciate the sentiments expressed in the title song: “May we never lose our wonder / Wide-eyed and mystified / May we be just like a child / staring at the beauty of our King.” Amen, “fill us with wonder.”


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Love be the Loudest - Ginny Owens


A terrific blend of accessibility and depth that uses dance as a primary style.

Love be the Loudest
Artist: Ginny Owens (www.ginnyowens.com)
Label: ChickPower Music, LLC
Length: 13 songs/46 minutes

Love be the Loudest by Ginny Owens is such a pleasant surprise. When she gained notoriety through “If You Want Me To” off her debut Without Condition (1999), I never imagined that her ninth studio release would take this turn.

What makes this so delightful is her foray into electronic dance music. I never would have guessed that this format would work for someone that I associated with deeply reflective songwriting. Then again, Owens has experimented with a variety of sounds in her career. Yet, I find this remarkable for its blend of accessibility and thoughtfulness.

I like the sentiments, many of which are about relationship, love and God’s perspective (“The Way God Sees”).

Even though the style is different it is among Owens’ best work. The songwriting, arrangements and production are excellent. The guest appearances, which consists of Ellie Holcomb, Mike Weaver, Andrew Bergthold, Meredith Andrews, Andrew Greer and All Sons & Daughters, make it a collaborative effort. It even includes subtle updates of two of her best songs: “If You Want Me To,” and “Wonderful Wonder.” The latter, with its references to sight, are somewhat poignant given that Owens is blind. Regardless, these along with her other songs show just how much she can see.

I agree with Owens that “The Fire” is the most significant song. It carries the most weight. The inspiration came in the aftermath of a recent struggle involving a benign tumor and vocal challenges. The attitude conveyed is broadly applicable: “Thank you for the fire/thank you for the night/thank you for the trial that I don’t know how to fight.” I appreciate the vulnerability. It’s encouraging to know that we are not alone when we face the seemingly insurmountable.

“Made for Loving You” is a departure. The only instrumentation is an electric guitar played sparingly with winsome R&B. Andrew Bergthold adds to the soulfulness.

“God is Love” with All Sons & Daughters, heard as a brief intro at the beginning of this release and then completely as the closing song, is a beautiful hymn. The unison vocals are in the forefront, the music minimal, which rightly emphasizes the words.

Owens should be satisfied. Experimenting doesn’t always produce such terrific results. It should win her new fans and yet be appreciated by those who have followed her over the years.

This renews my interest in Owens’ work and will have me watching for what comes next.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Inheritance Deluxe Addition - Audrey Assad


One of the year’s best is now better

Inheritance Deluxe Addition

Artist: Audrey Assad (www.audreyassad.com)
Label: Fortunate Fall Records
Length: 16 tracks/approximately 1 hour

One of the year’s best releases is now even better. Audrey Assad teams with acclaimed cellist Cara Fox to reinterpret four songs from the original release in a neoclassical style. Cello, violin, harp, electric guitar and drums blend together live on “Be Thou My Vision,” “How Can I Keep from Singing,” “New Every Morning” and “It is Well with My Soul.”

The addition of the harp stands out and adds a beauty not heard on the originals. It’s an underutilized instrument in popular music, which is a shame because it has such pure tones. Though it is mixed with the other instruments, I found myself listening for it.

“New Every Morning” is a gorgeous original. The line referring to the beginning of creation, “You broke an unbroken silence” is a beautiful bit of poetry. In a way, I might summarize the whole release as poetic.

Worship leader Sarah Kroger adds her voice to “How Can I Keep from Singing” and “It is Well with My Soul.” The former starts with “I Wonder as I Wander.” You can almost feel the cold. Imagine a winter night with stars overhead. It then seamlessly transitions to the warm “How Can I Keep.” It’s like going from darkness to dawn. The music is radiant.

I may prefer this version of “It is Well.” It seems a little less traditional. The original features a congregation, but I like just hearing Assad and Kroger.

“Oh, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” remains a favorite from the initial release. It is coupled with the music associated with “Morning Has Broken” and includes Fernando Ortega, who along with Assad is excellent in adapting old lyrics.

In my prior review I never mentioned the opening track but feel compelled to do so here. “Ubi Caritas” is an ancient text sung entirely in Latin. As one reviewer noted it sounds more Celtic than Gregorian. It’s haunting but holy as captured on this YouTube video, which includes a translation. Assad writes, “I began this record with ‘Ubi Caritas’ because it felt like the perfect way to begin a collection of songs that shaped up to be a love note from me to the church.”

This is artistry that is relevant but timeless. It combines a judicious use of technology with mostly ancient verse. The latter springs to life anew.

The excellence makes me want to investigate all of Assad’s subsequent releases, and maybe even prior ones.

The reworked songs, dubbed The Fox Sessions, include live videos contained on a DVD or flash drive. So those who purchase this Deluxe Addition will have even more to savor.




Sunday, October 2, 2016

Songs of the People - Prestonwood Worship


Michael W. Smith and Paul Baloche highlight a solid release from Prestonwood Worship

Songs of the People
Artist: Prestonwood Worship
Label: Integrity Music
Length: 13 tracks/1 hour 15 minutes

Being unfamiliar with Prestonwood Worship, advertised guest appearances by Paul Baloche and Michael W. Smith on Songs of the People caught my attention. Each of them deliver brief but effective performances. Of the two, Baloche plays a larger role being part of three songs. Smith’s sole contribution is the closing “We Are Alive,” which would be at home on any of his live albums. He brings his typical enthusiasm.

Overall, the sound and style is comparable to the mainstream releases in this genre. It’s contemporary but conservative, not edgy or alternative, which widens the possible appeal.

It may falter a little in being distinct from other similar albums. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a few of the subtleties: the string introduction on “You Can Have it All,” which is a performance of “I Surrender All,” and the call and response on “Let the Redeemed” where the choir is prominent.

At least three of the tracks incorporate phrases from hymns, which seems to be a recent trend. The best example is “Our Story Our Song” a truly joyful ode that borrows from Franny Crosby, “This, this is our story/this, this is our song/We are praising, praising our Savior all the day long, all the day long.” These phrases have never sounded better.

This, along with Smith’s anthem “We Are Alive” and Baloche’s “We Turn Our Eyes” are three of the best moments. The latter is quietly worshipful.

The tracks feature a variety of song leaders, only two of them led by women. They all acquit themselves honorably.

These are all new songs performed live at the 42,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church, which has two locations in the Dallas, TX area. It’s one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the world. Dr. Jack Graham is the pastor.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The River - Jordan Feliz

Could it be that simple … that the cross can save us all?

The River
Artist: Jordan Feliz
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 11 tracks/36 minutes

The first sounds from The River by Jordan Feliz are a needle dropping on vinyl followed by the crackle often heard on a record. The pure tones of an acoustic guitar then launch into a blues melody. It’s like listening to an old classic. What a start for lovers of vinyl and/or the blues!

This 59 second intro to “The River,” the first single, serves as a stark contrast to a contemporary R&B/pop sound featuring prominent hand claps on a driving rhythm.

The forceful singing is a call to faith. This river is the water of life, found in Christ.

Next up, the second and current single, “Never Too Far Gone.” It’s a worthy followup with an equally captivating rhythm, and again, a message of hope that can apply to anyone.

Perhaps “Simple” could be a future single, one of the finest tracks found here. A playful melody serves as the background for basic questions with profound implications:

     Could it be that simple, that you love me and that’s it
     And we only need little, a little bit of faith that’s heaven sent

The latter part of the chorus points toward the revelation that this world so desperately needs:

     Don’t want my pride to get in the way, of the love that you give away
     Give me you, Give me truth, that the cross can save us all it’s really that
     Simple

The clarity is refreshing; the music compelling.

If the latter is more elemental on the stanzas of these songs, it highlights the expansiveness on the choruses. It may not be anything new, but I like how full and grand these punchlines sound. It’s along the lines of “Paradise” by Coldplay; the verses a little subdued followed by a majestic chorus. Though pop oriented, R&B is in the mix.

This is one of the things that intrigues me about contemporary music. You hear sounds that were unimaginable years ago. I’m fascinated by the synthesis of the manufactured and organic. One moment you hear something bewildering; the next, the strumming of a guitar or a piano.

Occasionally, you get heavy industrial synths, but it merely serves as the setup for a more satisfying resolve. Overall, the production is top-notch, on par with what you might hear on the radio.

It moves along on a steady clip until the last two tracks where it slows down. It fits the weighty subject matter: constancy and longing. The closing “Satisfied” showcases the raw talent of Feliz.

This is a solid debut. Expect to hear more.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture - Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness


Seeing God in the shadows

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism
Author: Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 374

I’m grateful that years ago recording artist Jeff Johnson recommended Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker. It fascinated despite being a bleak assessment. It did, however, offer a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in the arts.

This is the background for Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, in which the authors acknowledge the contributions of the former but offer correctives to the view that modernism was bereft of religious influences. Rookmaaker tended to see in terms of black and white, whereas the authors of this book provide a more nuanced view of art history. They find the religious influence where it is not obvious but nevertheless a factor. It is a little like seeing God in the shadows.

This makes it not only informative but a delight. As stated in the Afterword by Daniel A. Siedell, “This book is a gift to those whose lives as Christians have been shaped by modern art and culture. It reveals the authors’ love for their subject. Their words are nothing if not life-giving” (338).

It helps if you have a background in art history, and/or have read Rookmaaker, but even if you have not, the biographical sketches of the artists examined are engaging and inspirational. In particular, I enjoyed reading about Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol. The story of the latter takes me back to the quote at the beginning of this volume, “One should reject nothing without a determined attempt to discover the living elements within it” (Vasily Kandinsky). On the surface, one might judge the works of Warhol to be irreligious, but as they do so adeptly throughout, the authors find signs of life, prompting an alternative view to the accepted, which is not always accurate. This reminds me of the words of Jesus, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24 ESV).

I have heard it said that reviewers often get it wrong. I know that it’s been true of this reviewer, which makes the following a favorite: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2 ESV). Pride and hasty judgments lead to error. It’s why I appreciate the careful exposition found in this volume. The authors are not immune to our human propensity to get it wrong, but their mastery and love for the material is obvious, as well are the irenic tone.

As an outsider to the art world, who sometimes felt a little lost in the details here, the thought of F. W. Boreham helped me to persevere in my reading:

If a man is to keep himself alive in a world like this, infinity must be sampled. Like a dog on a country road I must poke into as many holes as can. If I am naturally fond of music, I had better study mining. If I love painting, I shall be wise to go in for gardening. If I glory in the seaside, I must make a point of climbing mountains and scouring the bush. If I am attached to things just under my nose, I must be careful to read books dealing with distant lands. If I am deeply interested in contemporary affairs, I must at once read the records of the days of long ago and explore the annals of the splendid past. I must be faithful to old friends, but I must get to know new people and to know them well. If I hold to one opinion, I must studiously cultivate the acquaintance of people who hold the opposite view, and investigate the hidden recesses of their minds with scientific and painstaking diligence. Above all I must be constantly sampling infinity in matters of faith. If I find that the Epistles are gaining a commanding influence upon my mind, I must at once set out to explore the prophets.… ‘The Lord has yet more truth to break out from his Word!’ said John Robinson; ‘and I must try to find it.

I don’t normally read this type of book. Art history is a foreign culture, but I see the wisdom in Boreham’s advice. I have gained understanding.

If Rookmaaker left me despairing of culture, I recognize again that things are not always what they seem. I never want to be undiscerning, but to borrow the thought from an old song, I want to have my Father’s eyes: “Eyes that find the good in things/When good is not around.” The authors have this type of vision and it’s worth emulating.



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Where the Light Gets In - Jason Gray

God works through the broken places in our lives.

Where the Light Gets In
Artist: Jason Gray (www.jasongraymusic.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 13 tracks/45 minutes

The title of Jason Gray’s latest release, Where the Light Gets In, reminds me of a thought shared by a friend that he gleaned from a book. God works through the broken places in our lives. It’s where the light not only gets in but becomes visible to others. The apostle Paul expressed it like this when he recorded the answer of Jesus in response to his earnest prayer for deliverance from his thorn in the flesh, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 ESV). God’s glory is manifest in human frailty, or to quote from Paul, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7 ESV).

What amazes about Where the Light Gets In is that in song after song Gray expresses variations on the theme of brokenness.

Some might be tempted to think that this would saddle the recording with heaviness. If they could hear “Death with a Funeral,” they might use it as an example. It is a poignant break-up song. In defense of it, the gentle acoustic playing, the lovely strings, and the eloquent sentiments make it the most beautiful song of the album. The light obviously penetrated through this heartbreak and the song shines as a result.

No, this is not a gloomy album. Many of the tracks are celebratory and filled with hope. In fact, this continues a remarkable streak that you will find on the first track of any of Gray’s recent releases. It’s like the light gets in, and the joy has to come out. They have a roots music swagger, one that makes a person want to sing, clap, shout or dance. 

The only weakness here might be occasional sounds and words that are pedestrian. These moments are few.

In the world today we need more of the mindset found in the closing “Thank you for Everything,” which poetically expresses gratitude not only for the agreeable but the disagreeable. God uses both to bring us to the place where His light not only shines in but through us. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6 ESV). As my friend put it, the light shines through the cracks. And as Proverbs 4:18 says it, the believer in Christ has the hope that this light will continue to get brighter, just as dawn gives way to the full light of day. 

This collection of songs shows that God is still in the business of making light shine out of darkness. The discouraged will find this more than a little encouraging.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church - Ed Shaw

Creating a culture where life without sex is a grace to enjoy

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life
Author: Ed Shaw
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 172

For quite some time I wanted to read a book conveying a biblical perspective on homosexuality. It’s not that this type of book is scarce; it’s just that until now I never made it a priority given the many titles competing for my attention.

One thing that I immediately noticed about Same-Sex Attraction and the Church is the setting. The author, Ed Shaw, pastors a church in Bristol, England. I will never forget the adventure that I had in Birmingham, England, where I lived for the last half of 1984 and the first half of 1985. Back then, homosexuality was not the issue in the church that it is today. Both here and abroad it is a complex and divisive issue, which is why I wanted to read about this subject. I want to gain understanding and wisdom, and I found it here.

It was during my time in England that I became aware of Cliff Richard, who performed at Mission England, Billy Graham’s evangelistic outreach to the country in 1984. Richard, who has never married, is one of the most well-know pop stars on the planet, except in the US, and a committed Christian. Not too long ago, I read his autobiography, My Life, My Way, and came away with admiration for the way that he conducts himself.

I was, however, somewhat troubled by his support for same-sex relationships. He chooses to accept and not judge, making commitment the principal thing.

In contrast, Ed Shaw provides a different perspective. He is same-sex attracted, but maintains that living a celibate life is not only right but attractive. His entire book is about making it plausible since life without sex might seem unreasonable.

Championing celibacy does not mean the author sees it as easy. He is transparent about his own struggles and failures. The pinnacle of the climb that he takes with readers is the concluding chapter on suffering, where he refutes the myth that it should be avoided. He extols it as the means God uses to produce Christlikeness.

One could easily assume that this is just a book for same-sex attracted Christians. As a single person, I found it relevant to being faithful while being attracted to the opposite sex.

Shaw upholds the biblical ethic that marriage is between a man and a woman, and is the only acceptable relationship for sex.

In one of the chapters Shaw highlights the biblical view that men and women are equal, but they are not interchangeable. In other words, the male/female union in marriage is a depiction of Christ and the church. Anything other than that, distorts the picture. It’s a fascinating argument against same-sex marriage.

Throughout the book the author appeals to the church for help in holding-up celibacy as a genuine alternative to sex outside of marriage. Each chapter highlights a different falsehood that is prevalent today. The solution is repentance that creates a culture where life without sex is not a burden to bear, but a grace to enjoy.

In the back Shaw lists the top ten books that everyone should read. Plus, in the two appendices, he provides an overview of what the Bible advocates and how it fits in with the overall story. He then shows where and how those holding to new interpretations get it wrong. These are terrific summaries of the main points on both sides of the issue. 

He helps readers to see that convictions sometimes spring from emotions and other considerations that might seem more humane and realistic than what the Bible teaches. However, if we can examine them impartially, in the full light of Scripture, and in relationship to a God, who is more loving and good than we can imagine, we might find that our ways are weighed in the balance and found wanting. So often what we believe falls short (because we do), whereas God is faithful and true forever. The mightiest waves of culture can relentlessly crash against this rock but to no avail. His foundation is firm. When we build on it in love and compassion we make it realistic in the eyes of others.

Monday, June 13, 2016

This Changes Everything - Cana's Voice

New vocal group includes former Avalon member

This Changes Everything
Artist: Cana’s Voice (www.canasvoice.com)
Label: StowTown Records
Length: 54 minutes

2016 is already a momentous year for former Avalon member Jody McBrayer. Earlier he released Keep Breathing, his first full-length solo recording in 14 years, and now he returns with Cana’s Voice, a new group making their debut. Joining him is TaRanda Greene, a regular featured vocalist on Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir projects, and Doug Anderson a founding member of Signature Sound.

You hear a little of all their backgrounds on This Changes Everything: pop, R&B, inspirational, country and gospel. Doug Anderson brings an enjoyable country flavor to the tracks in which he sings lead. My favorite might be “Love Anyway,” which encourages listeners to stay when feeling like leaving.

One unique track musically is “I Give it to You,” with banjo and hand-clap leading the way on a song about God redeeming everything brought to Him.

The sound is contemporary but conservative. At times I hear a southern gospel influence on this recording. This is crafted in such a way as to give it broad appeal. Even so, I give the edge to McBrayer’s  solo release because musically it’s a little more sophisticated. However, if you are a fan of McBrayer, or of the past work of the other two artists, you will most likely enjoy this and want to add it to your collection.

As you might guess given the resumes of these singers, the vocals are stellar. The production is clean. The songwriting is loaded with encouragement and solace.

One of my favorite lines comes from the chorus of “Jesus Never Fails”: “You might as well get behind me, Satan/You cannot prevail/Because Jesus never fails.”

Aside from the work of artists like Keith and Kristyn Getty, you might not hear songs about the blood of Jesus that are relevant to those not raised on hymns like “Power in the Blood.” “Let the Blood Speak for Me” succeeds admirably in music and sentiment. It not only speaks for me but to me.

The album also includes a lovely, soulful rendering of Kirk Franklin’s “Hello Fear.” 

“Holy Spirit Come Fill this Place” is petition and worship. It’s beautiful to hear all three members gently harmonizing on the chorus. This could be a closing song in concert as well as serving as the closer here.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Life's too short to pretend you're not religious - David Dark

A circle that takes others in

Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious
Author: David Dark
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 199

The story, as told by F. W. Boreham, illustrates an underlying theme in David Dark’s Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.

Jeff Kilbourne was a young citizen of the United States
who happened to be studying art in Paris when the War broke
out. He felt the thrill of the stirring movements by which he
was encircled, and longed to have some part in them. Yet how
could he? He could not return to America to enlist, and, anyhow,
the United States had not, at that stage, entered the field
of hostilities. So he joined a French battalion and soon became
the most popular member of it. Everybody loved Jeff. His comrades
would have laid down their lives for him; the people of
the village in which the regiment was quartered became wonderfully
fond of him; the old priest felt strangely drawn to Jeff,
and was always the happier after catching his smile.

But one day the company was sent into action and most
of its members fell—including Jeff. Next day the old priest
was called upon to bury the dead in the graveyard beside the
church and then a serious complication arose. For what about
Jeff? Jeff was a Protestant; how could he be buried with his
comrades in Catholic ground? The good old priest was full
of grief; but he saw no way out of the difficulty. He did the
best he could by arranging that the men should be buried in
rows across the graveyard—rows that stretched from wall to
wall—and that Jeff should be buried in one of those rows but
just outside the wall. He would thus be in the company of his
comrades; the wall alone intervening.

The burial took place, and the old priest, weary with his
labors, returned to his well-earned rest. But that night the villagers
arose in the moonlight and, joined by Jeff’s surviving
comrades, they pulled down part of the wall and rebuilt it in
such a way that it took Jeff in!

Religion can draw lines that exclude. In what might be the best book on religion that I will ever read, Dark defines religion to take others in.

Just the word carries baggage and makes others ill at ease. But Dark’s perspective makes it winsome, which is what it ought to be. Just like when I read Boreham, religion becomes a beautiful thing. It can be healing.

Dark helps to make sense of it all, to find meaning in everything, even pop culture. Isn’t that part of our shared longing? Give me knowledge, understanding and wisdom that can be applied to every situation.

It requires openness. Oswald Chambers observed that when we are rightly related to God even a flower can carry God’s message. With Dark, it might be a Radiohead song, or a scene from a movie.

Mindfulness is essential, becoming aware of what we truly believe as shown through our actions. We all worship, and our propensities and controlling thought processes are some of the indicators of the altars at which we serve.

Reality is defined in relation to others. One of the most telling illustrations, which highlights our interrelatedness and need for each other, comes from Dark’s then four-year-old son. “Giving voice to his specific love for the antics and escapades of Scooby-Doo and the community with whom he makes his way through a harried world, he once told me that he especially likes the moments in which Scooby and Shaggy get scared to the point of paralysis. In what I suspect is a touchstone in every episode … there comes a time when Scooby and Shaggy respond to duress (a man in a monster costume, for instance) by leaping into one another’s arms and quivering together for a couple of seconds, a precious moment in which it’s hard to say where the dog stops and the man begins. They hold each other, we might say, but in his effort to articulate what delighted him so, the child put it much, much better: ‘They hold their ’chother’” (138-139).

Further on in the same chapter he aptly summarizes one aspect of the concept, “Our life is one long process of mutual aid, and what a relief it is when people act on this knowledge. I want to keep within me and hold to the wit and the sensitivity of spirit to see, feel, appreciate, fear and revere the inescapable fact of my own caught-uppedness in the web of other people’s kindness” (150).

I need this book. Too often I withdraw and want to hold others at a distance. I need more of the religion that teaches me to include, as much as possible, rather than exclude. It’s not about compromising convictions, those remain intact. It’s more about getting closer to the heart of God, who values mercy over sacrifice, and welcomes the prodigal home. That’s me, not some other person!

As Boreham puts it, “True spirituality is magnificently inclusive. What is it that Edward Markham sings?”

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took Him in.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

APOLLOS Old Testament Commentary 7B: Ruth - L. Daniel Hawk


More reasons than I realized as to why I like a seemingly insignificant Old Testament book

APOLLOS Old Testament Commentary 7B: Ruth
Author: L. Daniel Hawk
Publisher: Apollos (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press, England) (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 166

People seem surprised when I tell them that Ruth is one of my favorite books in the Bible. They wonder why I like such a small (only four chapters), seemingly insignificant book. It has few references to God and little theological content.

I probably haven’t helped much by saying that I like a good story. Maybe I have not realized all the reasons why I have been drawn to it. I do know that I was thrilled with the surprise of having L. Daniel Hawk’s commentary arrive in the mail. He articulates why I cherish Ruth.

Warning: this article contains spoilers. If you have never read this particular book in the bible, you should stop now before you continue. It won’t take long, but take your time. The text itself is better than my review or any commentary.

As noble as some of the characters in Ruth behave, I had never thought of the story as being scandalous. Yet Hawk highlights an insider/outsider motif. Ruth is not only an outsider, but a Moabite, a race with a history of antagonism in relation to Israel.

The threat of idolatry looms behind the prohibition of intermarriage with Moabite or other foreigners. When a relatively small company of Jews repopulated their homeland, it was marriage to foreign women that caused the godly Ezra so much consternation.

So how can an outsider like Ruth from a hated people group be accepted into the community of Israel? Ruth tells the story, and Hawk’s analysis is masterful. I will let him speak: “The book of Ruth plays directly off these sentiments (of antagonism towards Moab – reviewer’s addition) and turns them on their heads. In Ruth the reader encounters a Moabite who joins the Israelite community and devotes herself to Israel’s God. She personifies the faithfulness (hesed) that defines the heart of ideal Israel. She marries an upstanding Judean male and becomes the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king. Although she is ‘Ruth the Moabite’ throughout the narrative, the final mention of her name does not include the ethnic signifiers. In the end she is only ‘Ruth’ (4:13), fully indentified with the covenant community (Glover 2009: 294, 302-303)” (23).

It’s astonishing where Hawk, or should I say the story, takes us: “The book concludes, however, with the community’s blessing of a Moabite wife as better than seven (Israelite) males (4:15), articulating the conviction that faithful foreigners can become valued members of the covenant community” (25-26).

In reaching this conclusion, the author briefly summarizes the relationship between law and narrative. He sees a flexible understanding of the law. Think of Jesus refusing to chastise his hungry disciples from picking and eating kernels of grain on the Sabbath. Christ responds to this challenge from the Pharisees by directing their attention to an episode when David and his men were fleeing from Saul. They broke the law by requesting and receiving the bread that was only meant for the priests. Hawk notes three things from this exchange that bear on Ruth’s acceptance into the community: “First, Christ set a narrative text in opposition to a commandment. Secondly, he implied that sustaining life takes priority over the strict application of the commandment; both David and the disciples broke commandments in order to assuage hunger. Thirdly, he commented on the role of the law: laws are made to serve people, not the other way around” (138).

Does this make the author a theological liberal? No, he has found exquisite beauty in a text that reflects God’s hesed, his steadfast love. He writes, “Ruth resists the idea that membership in the covenant community is restricted to those who can trace a bloodline to the nation’s ancestors and that walls must be erected to keep ethnic others safely outside. It presents an alternative vision that recalls the heart of the covenant tradition, that is, that Israel is a community constituted by covenant rather than be genetics. Israelite identity, in other words, is ultimately volitional, not innate. One becomes an Israelite by the decisions one makes to live in devotion to Israel’s God and to display the devotion to others that lies at the heart of the commandments. Ruth reveals that Israel’s internal walls though have gates, and it establishes the means by which outsiders may pass through them to unite with those who bear the blessing of Abraham. Ruth the Moabite confesses Israel’s God, exemplifies covenant devotion and, in due course, receives the blessing of Yahweh and a standing among Israel’s ancestors” (140).

At first I thought that this commentary wasn’t oriented enough towards application. I would have liked to have seen more along these lines, but in reviewing passages like the foregoing, I realized that it is here, and it’s exceptional. It’s just not what I expected. I was looking more for pastoral insights and how readers can apply this to their own lives.

The author doesn’t get into types and allegories, places that others frequent. Perhaps he believes that would read into the text something that is not explicitly stated. Frankly, it’s probably better to start with something like this, which is careful, sometimes technical exegesis. This is a sure foundation.

Nevertheless, I would welcome the opportunity to read Ruth in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, though at the moment it remains a projected but not yet published title. My reason is that the reformers use allegory, but within limits. These two different types of commentaries will make excellent companions. I can turn to this volume for clarity and precise meaning. The other will help with the many possible applications.  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72

The reformers use restraint in their allegory.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72
Editor: Herman J. Selderhuis
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 561

In reading Old Testament VII: Psalms 1-72, the latest in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, I am immediately faced with how psalms should be interpreted. In the introduction, Editor Herman J. Selderhuis addresses what is meant by the “literal meaning of Scripture.” The definition has changed over time. “Today by the ‘literal meaning of Scripture’ we mean its meaning according to the constraints of grammar, history and literary method,” he writes (xlvi).

Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, the author of an influential Psalter, saw a twofold meaning in the literal sense: the simple and the spiritual. He defined the simple like the literal sense is defined today. The grammatical, historical and literary aspects of the actual words of Scripture are the focus. The spiritual seeks understanding in light of the full form and content of Scripture. The two are distinguishable but inseparable. The simple is viewed as serving the spiritual, which has priority. This is the approach affirmed by the reformers. “Luther was particularly insistent that Scripture’s substance, Christ, is the interpretive key for all its words” (xlvii).

The reformers used this approach to evaluate the frequent use of allegory. When it did not conform to the rule of faith it was rejected. On the positive side, when it did not go beyond the bounds of Scripture it could “not only enrich doctrine but also console consciences” (xlviii).

Selderhuis goes on to discuss the spectrum of views that reformers had on this subject. Luther and his followers tended to quickly jump to the spiritual meaning, whereas on the opposite end, Calvin spent more time on grammatical and historical considerations before moving on to Christological or ecclesial interpretations.

Today it seems like modern commentators tend to focus more on the technical aspects and less on spiritual meanings. To some extent this is probably a reaction against the abuse of allegory in the past. This trend can lead to greater accuracy, but on the downside, modern commentaries may not be as strong when it comes to connecting the material to Christ and the Church.

That is definitely not a weakness of this volume or any others in this series. Every page is rich in meaning and application. Technical considerations are in the background. The emphasis is on the spiritual meaning of the psalms, which makes for excellent devotional reading, though it may be a bit wordy at times.

One distinctive that I appreciate is a theology of suffering. The doctrine of the reformers is cross-centered. We triumph in the same way as Christ through love and sacrifice. We should not think it strange if we are mistreated and experience trials. It is a comfort to know that this is not unusual. Our exaltation is not fully realized here.

In contrast, a theology of glory, might lead one to believe that pain and hardship are not normal. Taken to an extreme you approximate a health and wealth gospel, where it’s all about prospering now. Suffering is an anomaly, something to be avoided. It may even be seen as a sign of God’s disfavor.

The reformers might think it strange and alarming that such views could be seen as valid. In commenting on Psalm 5, Nikolaus Selnecker writes, “In this life, things generally go well for the wicked; they flutter about in great honor. They are powerful and rich; they also possess such names and titles that intimate that they are holy, pious and honorable people. The pious, however, and in fact the whole church of God, must suffer in this life and we are subject to crosses on every side. They must also continue to bear such names that intimate that they are unruly rebels and heretics among whom no peace or order can be maintained. Now this is painful. And it causes great offense and grieves the hearts and conscience of many pious, godfearing people and teachers. Against this, we must arm ourselves not only with the Word or with teaching with which we confront the godless, but also with somber, incessant prayer to God, that he would rule and protect his inheritance—that is, his church and believers—against false teachers, fanatical spirits and tyrants” (46). Such is the depth found in the reformers.

Each psalm is reproduced in the English Standard Version followed by a brief and helpful overview by the editor. The comments, which are drawn from different ancient writings, are grouped in sections under a verse or verses. Whether it is a verse or comment, each section has a heading that summarizes the content.

Unlike more technical commentaries, some verses, phrases and words are not specifically covered. Usually the commentator gives more of a general sense of a passage. Those looking for detailed exegesis of every verse will not find it here. 

As I have said about some of the past volumes in the series, this is worth reading just to get the comments of people like Luther and Calvin. Those from lesser or unknown reformers are just as valuable. I recommend all of these books. The perspectives here are unique, unlike what you find elsewhere today. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Keep Breathing - Jody McBrayer


Strong comeback from a former Avalon member

Keep Breathing
Artist: Jody McBrayer (www.jodymcbrayer.com)
Label: StowTown Records
Length: 11 tracks/44 minutes

Keep Breathing by Jody McBrayer feels like a homecoming. In one sense it becomes that when he joins his former Avalon partner, Melissa Greene, on “God is in Control” (not the Twila Paris song). It’s a pleasure to hear these two blending and complementing their voices on a song that speaks to the times in which we live.

The opening “Good to be Home” is the sound of a prodigal returning. The lyrics and R&B/gospel styling are so warm. It’s a testimony of coming in from the cold. It’s emerging from a time of difficulty with a new song. Like much of this release, it worships Christ and celebrates being in the family of God.

Along with the title track and “He Gave Me More Love” these three songs especially appeal because of the soulful music. They are my favorites. They exude welcome. It’s like being greeted with a loving embrace.   

The programming and the guitar riff on “When We Look Back” are a look back toward one of Avalon’s most famous songs, “Testify to Love.” It’s a slower song but I hear echoes of the former’s majesty.

The pennywhistle on “With Each Borrowed Breath” gives it a Celtic feel. It’s a pensive reflection on one’s days. It’s one of several worshipful songs. They feel so appropriate on this release.  

Though well-written and performed, the style of the orchestrated “What it takes to be a Savior” is probably the least compelling. It follows the inspirational format one might associate with singers that start quietly and build toward a crescendo where they hit and hold the high notes. It’s not a bad song; you won’t find one on this release. It just doesn’t feel as fresh.

On the other hand, on this and the other tracks you hear a voice that is as strong as ever, regardless of the setting. McBrayer masters the material.

The inspirational style works best on the closing, “This is a Son,” which addresses the marginalized and outcasts of our society. It makes a startling identification at the end.

McBrayer was part of Avalon for nearly 12 years, until he left in 2007 due to a rare but manageable form of heart disease. His previous releases consist of This is Who I Am (2002) and an EP on iTunes, Christmastime (2015).

This is a strong comeback, one that will appeal to Avalon fans and anyone that appreciates faith-inspired music. Grace, the work of Christ and praise are three repeated themes. The gospel-oriented material alone makes this worthwhile. The weaker moments are when McBrayer drifts toward the orchestrated, but it doesn’t overshadow this effort.

Friday, March 4, 2016

New Testament Introduction (Fourth Edition) - Donald Guthrie


No serious scholar should be without this masterful analysis.

New Testament Introduction (Fourth Edition)
Author: Guthrie, Donald
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 1161

Can there be a finer introduction to the New Testament? I don’t see how any other volume could exceed this exhaustive work. The fourth edition of New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie represents a lifetime of study and it’s now available in paperback, which makes it more affordable.

No Bible institute, college or university, and no theological library should be without it. It provides detailed analysis of the form and content of every book in the New Testament. Form and content are the key words. Like nothing else that I have read, it goes to great lengths to examine structure and theories of origin.   

It’s a scholar’s and academic’s dream. Extensive footnotes are found on every page. There is also a lengthy bibliography. The author’s command of the material is astonishing.

The one drawback is that it may be a little unintelligible and tedious for the non-academic. That’s not to discourage anyone from trying to read this, although it will be easier to consult, rather than read from beginning to end.

Unfortunately, many Christians will never go this deep, and that is a shame, because the material is important. It matters. It’s wrestling with the Scriptures on a different level, and in some instances the outcomes have had a negative impact.

More liberal thinkers call into question the history and reliability of the Scriptures. This is where the various theories of source and form criticisms come into play. There is no denying that this is difficult reading, but the competing arguments and analysis are useful in defending the faith. Fortunately, Guthrie is an evangelical, one committed to thoughtfully examining all the relevant data. We can learn from how he handles it.

Any pastor, theologian, scholar and serious Bible student can benefit from even a general knowledge of the material. On the other hand, they could easily dismiss the relevance, by imagining little in terms of return in pastoral ministries, which is a narrow, questionable view. This is an outstanding reference work that belongs on their shelf so that they can consult it if and when needed. Who knows what truth may be gleaned and what fruit it will bear?

There are subject and author indexes in the back, but no Scripture index. With so many references that might have been a difficult undertaking. Plus, each New Testament book is exhaustively covered in its own chapter. So if someone is studying a particular book, like The Epistle of James, they can easily turn to that section and learn about authorship, the addressees, date, purpose, literary form and style, and get a synopsis of the contents, plus find the many Scripture references pertaining to that section.

This also covers in detail the differences and problems associated with the synoptic gospels. If you want to learn about the hypothetical document know as “Q,” you will find a wealth of information, along with the speculation around other supposed documents or oral traditions.  

Don’t expect commentary and application. This has more to do with technical aspects. Yet, it can have some use for sermon preparation, especially when covering an entire book, or even just a few messages drawn from a bible book.  

For those looking to add a New Testament introduction to a theological library, you can’t go wrong with this. It provides more than most people will ever use.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Rediscovering Jesus - David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards

Let me know more of the true Christ; nothing less will do.

Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ
Authors: Capes, David B.; Reeves, Rodney; Richards, E. Randolph
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 272

Rediscovering Jesus could be the most interesting and helpful book that you ever read about Christ. This is not a quest for the historic Jesus, though that has its place and there is a chapter about it. This has more to do with answering two questions posed by Jesus to his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

You might think it pointless: I have answered these questions. The authors contend that there is more to Jesus than we can ever know. No one has him figured-out, but we can learn from each other.

Along the way, we must recognize the tendency to magnify aspects of his person that appeal to us and ignore or reject what we might not like. We might like to think that our view of Christ is biblical, but it can easily include outside elements. It can be a reflection of our limited knowledge, experience and even prejudice.

Rediscovering Jesus is divided into two parts: (1) portraits of Christ from the various New Testament books and writers and (2) views from outside the Bible. The latter consists of how he is seen by Gnostics, Muslims, Mormons, and Americans in general, those in search of the historical Jesus, and the images conveyed in the many movies about Christ. The authors could have easily added an interesting chapter about how Jesus is portrayed in song and hymns. As with the other subjects, the picture is not always accurate.

Even though the first part is engaging and insightful, I was even more intrigued by the examination of the unorthodox views in the second part, probably because the latter is less familiar. Even so, the material in the first section is well-organized and can serve as an excellent reference for studying New Testament depictions of Christ. Seeing the differences can be a revelation.

Each chapter in both sections contains three critical parts:

1.       What does the picture of Jesus look like?
2.       How is different?
3.       What if this was the only portrait of Christ?

For example, the authors ask, “Who does Mark say that Jesus is?” How does this differ from the Jesus of the other New Testament writers? In the cases of unorthodox portrayals, how do they differ from Scripture? Lastly, imagining that any one picture were the only one can have startling implications for worship and Christian practice.

They point out among many other things the widespread influence of Paul’s and John’s Jesus. “Paul tell us what Jesus did for us on the cross. John tells us that we need to be born again. So what do we talk about in our churches? We need to be born again (based on what Jesus did on the cross)” (255).

It may be obvious but worth stating, “We need a biblical Jesus” (256). One taken from the biblical texts but one that includes voices from the entire Bible.

Failure to do so can have serious consequences. You can see an extreme example in what critics refer to as ultra- or hyper-dispensationalism. This Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom to the Jews. Therefore, in relation to living the Christian life Paul’s words are deemed more applicable than the words of Jesus. It was left to Paul to reveal the gospel of grace and provide instructions for the Church. Subtle divisions like this seem right but can get people off-course when working-out the implications.

It might have been helpful if the authors had addressed the progressive nature of revelation. Does Paul further the ideas contained in the gospels or is he bringing new revelation? In order to answer groups like the hyper-dispensationalists, we need to be able to show how it all fits together. To some extent this is covered in the conclusion, but more could be said. I would welcome another volume from the authors along these lines.

This study can lead to greater discernment. “Give me Jesus” might well become the cry of the heart. It means rejecting wrong ideas and images learned from others and/or gained by making Christ in our own image. 

Rediscovering Jesus can be a guide towards knowing Christ more fully. Our knowledge of him now will never be perfect, but we can grow in our relationship and understanding.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Inheritance - Audrey Assad


Audrey Assad, one of the foremost Catholic artists in our day, infuses ancient texts with a simplicity and wonder that makes them sound timeless.

Inheritance
Artist: Audrey Assad (www.audreyassad.com)
Label: Fortunate Fall Records
Length: 11 songs/42 minutes

On Inheritance, Audrey Assad, one of the foremost Catholic artists in our day, infuses ancient texts with a simplicity and wonder that makes them sound timeless. Initially, as I thought how to describe it, words failed me. This production is an amalgamation of styles that varies from track to track.

The percussion and layered keyboards bear some resemblance to Celtic music, though you won’t find any flutes, pennywhistles or pipes. Piano, violin, cello and programming combine at times to create something ethereal.

The promotion for the release uses the word “cinematic.” Not a bad description for music that could serve as a soundtrack for something epic. At other moments, it’s little more than a fragile yet confident voice singing over piano and woodwinds.

One of the surprises is “Even unto Death,” which I mistook for an ancient song that I had never heard. Assad wrote this stirring, challenging ode to modern-day martyrs, especially those in the Middle East, with fellow Catholic Matt Maher, who sings on it.

Assad’s connection to the Middle East is more than a song. She is the daughter of a Syrian refuge.

“New Every Morning” is another outstanding composition by Assad and Maher. The rest are classics, with the exception of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” which is a more recent composition.

“New Every Morning” is a little like the beauty of the first day enshrined in song. Like the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, Assad’s voice gently floats over piano notes as she sings first of Creation, then Adam and Eve’s transgression, and lastly the Word made flesh, which makes the promise of new mercies every morning secure. This is a gorgeous track that grows in intensity.

One of the most remarkable transformations is “Oh, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” If the traditional melody has a sense of foreboding, coupling this with the music associated with “Morning Has Broken” is like lifting this from the chill of winter into the warmth of spring. It gives it a different feel. Fernando Ortega, one of my favorites, duets on it. His involvement is such an appropriate choice, given the sound of his voice and his history with hymns.

Another transformation takes place on “How Can I Keep from Singing.” It uses roots rock elements, layered keyboards and shimmering guitar to convey peace. Remakes don’t get much better.

Even in the more sparse moments like “It is Well with My Soul” and “Abide with Me” there is fullness. The former includes a small congregation of voices echoing the famous chorus. The winsomeness heard in both is due in large part to Assad’s singing. She effortlessly slips in and out of falsetto. I’m not that familiar with the rest of her work, but I can’t imagine her vocals being any more beautiful than what you find here. She could have sung each track with just piano accompaniment, and I would be applauding, but the various textures add richness. This is how to do hymns.

I’ve been collecting recordings like this for years, and this is without a doubt, one of the better ones. It has a transcendent quality; it’s worshipful and artistic; spiritual but earthy. I would welcome more along this line, but I’m interested in whatever she might do in the future. This is an artist to follow even as she continues to follow Christ.  

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3) Author: Michael Phillips ( www.fatherofthein...