Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where the Good Way Lies - Steve Bell

Bell’s most mature effort makes the Good Way inviting

Where the Good Way Lies
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (www.signpostmusic.com)
Length: 13 songs/42 minutes

The attitude in “Bring it On” by Steve Bell on Where the Good Way Lies makes it one of my favorites among all his songs. He could not have picked a better way to open his latest recording. It’s the mindset of “come what may” I can handle it. It is a wisdom born of walking with God for many years:
Less to conquer, less to do
Less inclined to suffer fools
Just happy to grow old with you
Bring it on, bring it on

Written with Murray Pulver, who once again in working with Bell is outstanding as a producer and musician, this epitomizes the wit, beauty and excellent craftsmanship that you find throughout this release.

This is probably the finest all-around recording that Bell has done in a career that stretches over 25 years and keeps getting better. I can’t help thinking that this Canadian who cites a legendary fellow citizen, Bruce Cockburn, as an influence, is following in his steps by combining faith and art in winsome and striking ways.

How fitting that once again Bell honors his mentor by recording Cockburn’s “Love Song.” As Bell writes in the liner notes, it is an example of “his beautiful melodies and more gentle sentiments.” That phrase goes a long way towards describing this release, which contains some of Bell’s best writing and music.

Native American chanting and instrumentation open the title track. This leads into some lone keyboard notes and a voice speaking the word, “seven.” It kicks into high gear with a jazz melody and psychedelic noodling on a synthesizer. Before it’s all done, in addition to Bell’s smooth singing, there is more spoken word, rap and then more chanting as it fades. It’s a wild amalgamation that reminds me of an earlier Bell song, “Waiting for Aidan,” but more advanced. I credit Bell and the producer for creatively making it all work together. With its indigenous wisdom, a reference to the seven days of creation, and allusions to what we all share together, you could consider it a song for all peoples and nations.

This adventurous ride is followed by the sparse, finger-picked, “And We Dance” which has a gorgeous hook. I find it arresting. If I’m doing something else while hearing it, I want to stop and listen. It must be one of the most delicate and tender songs that Bell has ever composed.

For those who struggle with feelings of inadequacy and failure, there is “A Better Resurrection,” a poem written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). The barest of instrumentation, which includes a dobro, gives this a bluegrass-feel. This is the background for lyrics that should resonate with any who are feeling a bit battered and bruised by life.
I have not wit, no words, no tears
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears
Look right, look left, I dwell alone
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see
My life is in the falling leaf

One could view these lines as depressing, but I find my heart strangely warmed. It’s a reminder that we are not alone when we feel blighted by the harsh realities of life.

Variations on the next two lines become the chorus after each stanza:
O Jesus, quicken me
O Jesus, quicken me

Direct appeal, spoken or sung, is powerful.

Another simple chorus taken from a quote from Augustine“Love is our way to God, for God is love”fits well with the upbeat, shuffling rhythm on “Love is our Way.” The invitation and welcome spring from a sermon preached by David Widdicombe.
All who carry disappointment come
Those who fear the fire of judgment come
And you who teach the royal way is not for some
Shame on you
Now lovers come

The line “you who teach the royal way is not for some” reminds me that the good news about Christ is for everyone, even those with whom we disagree and/or oppose followers of Jesus. As vigorously as we might need to defend the truth, we should always seek to avoid creating stumbling blocks or obstacles for others. It is more important to win people than arguments.

What freedom and joy are expressed in the final stanza:
The only thing left for us to do is love
If this alone be done it is enough

The cheerful melody is the perfect match for this all-encompassing virtue.

Melody, instrumentation and production wizardry come together beautifully on “Ash Wednesday,” which includes harmonica and banjo. The name comes from a service on that day, which provided the inspiration. Far from solemn, this has a full-bodied sound that strikes harmonious notes as the lyrics reflect on our misbegotten attempts to respond to God’s love.

If you have a record player and can afford to spend a little more, get this on vinyl. Analog equipment, that had long been out of use, was purposely restored for this project. Before the digital age, this was the means of recording, and many believe it provides a greater dynamic range. Even on the digital version, the sound is clear and rich. How much better on black vinyl? If I didn’t already have it, I would buy the record. Some releases are worth the extra investment; this is one of them.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The End of Protestantism - Peter J. Leithart

A bold summons to unity

The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church
Author: Peter J. Leithart
Publisher: Brazos Press (www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/brazospress)
Pages: 225

God’s Purpose & Vision was the title of a series of sermons preached at the non-denominational evangelical church I attended as a young Christian. It became a popular cassette tape package and book.

God’s purpose is for his people to glorify him through the accomplishment of a three-fold vision: being conformed into the image of Christ, evangelizing the world, and attaining to the unity of the faith. Much of the teaching that I have received over the years fits within this framework. Probably the most under-served categoryperhaps because of the challenge of implementationis teaching on the unity of the faith.

Since I first heard these concepts in the late 70s, the church is more divided than ever. Even then without necessarily saying it, many of us seemed to regard our church as superior to the ones around us. I wonder if at least subconsciously that is how many of us feel about the groups that we attend. That type of thinking does not foster unity.

Somewhere along the way I was taught that there is an invisible unity in the body of Christ, consisting of all true believers, regardless of their church affiliation. Leithart attacks that idea along with a host of related thoughts in The End of Protestantism. Right from the start, he boldly challenges the status quo: “Jesus wants his church to be one. But we are not” (3). Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17 is the foundation to all that he writes, and he never tries to make it mean anything less than a visible unity to a watching world.

This is an exhortation to move towards what the author terms a “Reformational Catholicism” (6). Catholic, of course, is used in the broadest sense: “the beliefs and practices of Christian churches that understand and describe themselves as being Catholic within the universal and apostolic church” (Wikipedia). This is Bonhoeffer’s “come and die” call to discipleship expressed in relation to the church. “We are called by our crucified Lord to die to what we are now so that we may become what will be” (7).

In sharing his vision the author orchestrates four movements. The first describes what the church of the future will look like. It dares to describe an entity that “expresses a biblical and Reformational” outlook. What Leithart sees is a “product of speculation and imagination, rooted … in Scripture and, to a lesser degree, in the church’s tradition” (26). He admits that he cannot know in detail what will be, nor how we will get there. “One thing we can know is that it will not be a mere continuation of any of today's churches” (26). It will be biblical but also sacramental and liturgical, and plenty more. Those in non-liturgical churches may find it hard to accept some of these elements. Just as others will be uncomfortable with what isn’t familiar to them, but this is where death to self is needed.

The second movement is a sweeping overview of denominational Christianity in the US. The case is made for and against its development. The verdict is obvious: “Whatever its accomplishments, denominationalism is an obstacle to the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer for unity” (89).

After viewing the fundamental flaws in denominationalism whose end must come, Leithart takes readers on a historical survey showing how God continually tears down what becomes deficient and replaces it with something better. Applying this to the topics at hand: “Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church. The names we now bear cannot be our final names” (114).

Even though I may be unsure about some of Leithart’s conclusions, I appreciate his thorough mastery of history and where we are today. This is an excellent resource on all things pertaining to unity. I don’t know of anything like it.

The third movement highlights how God is remaking the global church while the American denominational system is collapsing. He argues that this is an opening for implementing the vision that he lays out in the book.

Lastly, he offers guidelines to theologians, pastors, and lay Christians who want to move toward what will ultimately be a reunion. This is practical enough for anyone to benefit, if they are willing to take the steps. Even so, as we do what we can now, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers a helpful perspective:

It is important [to realize] that we cannot bring about unity in the church by diplomatic maneuvers. The result would only be a diplomatic structure base on human principles. Instead, we must open ourselves more and more to [Christ]. The unity he brings about is the only true unity. Anything else is a political construction, which is as transitory as all political constructions are. This is the more difficult way, for in political maneuvers people themselves are active and believe they can achieve something. We must wait on the Lord, that he will give us unityand of course we must go to meet him by cleansing our hearts (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, 77).

This reminds me of another obstacle to unity that Leithart touches on, namely, equating the church with politics. He writes, “Reformational Catholicism implies that the most basic political base for the Christian is the church. The church, not America or its interests, is the international context for evaluating and responding to global political events” (190). He is against mingling patriotism with the church.

A friend has written of a bold Christianity that challenges traditional thought. That comes to mind when I think of how this book addresses unity. The standard has been too low. Here is a man taking God at His word. He happily demolishes strongholds in the hope of something better. He imparts the vision and gives ways to run with it.

His lodestar is unchanging: Christ prayed for unity. How can it be otherwise?

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