What my 20-year old self would think of me at 40

17 Apr Andrew Byers
April 17, 2014

[Thanks to those of you who have kept checking at the blog in spite of my hiatus in writing. I have been grappling in grim earnest to finish off the monstrous beast of my PhD thesis (and yeah, Beowulf has been in the pleasure-reading, as the foregoing clauses betray).]

This will be a rather personal post.

I turn 40 over the weekend. It feels like a milestone of sorts, one worthy of some degree of reflection (at the risk of self-absorption).

I used to pray that I would not “sell out” or slink into worldly compromise when I got older. So I have been wondering what the 20-year old Andy would think about the 40-year old Andy… about the values I now hold, the vocational goals, the accomplishments or lack thereof. Would that younger version of me (“20A” we will call him)—a passionate and restless soul freshly committed to serving Jesus to the death and to the uttermost reaches of the earth—would he approve of the contemporary Andy (henceforth “40A”)? Would he find his prayers against the lukewarm-ness of adulthood had been answered in the unfolding of two decades? And since I had a major change of heart after becoming more serious about my faith at 19, I will throw in some thoughts from the 18 year old Andy (“18A”)….

I think 20A would be absolutely flabbergasted to find that 40A is still a student. How could this be? 20A chose “Forestry” as a field of study to avoid the “liberal” religious studies department at UGA, and eked by academically just enough to get into seminary a couple of years later. And now 40A is 85,000 words into a doctoral thesis on biblical theology. 20A certainly evidenced some degree of intellectual promise, but university academics were a laborious distraction from the glorious “out-there,” the land of greener grass beyond the quad, a realm full of grand and epic adventures among perishing souls in need of rescue. 20A would be positively shocked to find his older self slogging through a third postgraduate degree.

What would 18A think? He would be disappointed that I have not already won a gubernatorial race in my home state of Georgia, and entirely miffed that financial means would be squandered on degrees that yield little in terms of financial means.

I think 20A would be pleased that 40A has written a couple of books. He would be quite dismayed, however, over 40A’s (materialistic?) struggle with their poor sales performance, even though 18A would be livid that one would invest so much time and energy (and I mean so much time and energy) in profitless enterprises like writing on theology and culture.

20A would be excited to discover that 40A has a passport jammed full of stamps and currently lives overseas. He would be puzzled, however, that the overseas location is an industrialized Western nation rather than a dark, jungly place of daily dangers.

20A would also be troubled by the fact that 40A has yet to reach an unreached people group and bring them to faith. He would have a tough litany of questions to pose to 40A: how could you be studying when so many people are starving and without the Gospel, or in need of medical help, or in need of rescue from oppression?

On that note, 20A would be pleased to learn that two decades later he would be struggling through multiple languages. He would, however, rub his eyes in consternation over news that said languages are biblical Greek, ancient Hebrew, and academic German. Why not the tonal clicks and gutturals of a stone age tribe awaiting the Gospel?

In sum, 20A would be very pleased indeed to know that 38A daringly moved his wife and kids to another country “by faith,” leaving behind a nice big house, a respectable job, and beloved members of his wider family. He would delight that a hefty percentage of material goods were jettisoned for that costly jaunt overseas. He would just be alarmed that all of this sacrifice—though expended in the name of following Christ—involves the pursuit of a ministerial vocation with such an academic bent.

18A would find both 20A and 40A as alien and quite unfamiliar and would possibly suffer embarrassment over being associated with either of them.

I have a lot to learn from the 20-year old version of myself. That guy had an edge about him, a streak of rebellion against “the way the world works.” One of the benefits of working with university students in ministry is that they do not know about these worldly workings and can thereby hear with peculiar clarity the countercultural edginess of the Gospel. I do not wish to lose sight of the divine kingdom that turns the world upside down.

But in spite of all the concerns 20A would wish to raise with 40A, he would be quite pleasantly shocked beyond all expectation and hope that 40A was married to Miranda Waters, a girl who had caught his 20 year old eyes, and that they had brought into this world the four children whom 40A regularly fails but loves so dearly. Spending one moment with the five people now affixed to 40A, dogging his steps and adorning his life, 20A would probably collapse to his knees. The youngster would not know what to do with the PhD decision, the life in England, the academic pursuits… but he would certainly have some sense, I hope, that however a stranger 40A seemed to be, something beautiful and wondrous was underway in his life.

Something grand. And epic.

“When the world is sick, can’t no one be well. But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.” A conversation with Richard Kentopp of the Gentle Wolves

12 Mar Chris Breslin
March 12, 2014

Thousands of music fans, media connoisseurs, and cultural experts flock to Austin, TX this week to participate in South By Southwest (SXSW) a music and film festival featuring more than 2000 bands, hundreds of film premiers, and interactive sessions including a “virtual conversation with Edward Snowden.”  Perhaps most notable, a several years ago Twitter was introduced here.

Cultural centers like these always interest me in terms of the church’s engagement –missiologically, artistically, culturally, and doxologically. As a part of a series of conversations I’ve had with musicians making music in and for the church, I spoke to Richard Kentopp of Austin. He plays and leads music at both Servant Church and Mosaic and has been rolling out new Gentle Wolves songs each week since February. Richard is a UT Longhorn and went to Fuller Theological Seminary, before being ordained by Mosaic and serving at Servant Church in East Austin.

Our church has been influenced by Richard’s recording ministry with Gentle Wolves (the house band for Servant Church).  His particular skill for excavating and refreshing old (in some cases very old) hymn texts, writing new songs from and for the church, and also appropriating songs from outside that speak the language of and make sense, perhaps most sense for, the church. And he does all of this with a deft ear and keen sensibility for the people in his community. By trade he is a musician, but he is also a pastor with a heart for those on the margins of faith. His creativity and bravery in a place deemed the “live music capital of the world” is truly inspiring.

On the new set of songs (dubbed Vol. IV), perhaps the quintessential display of these sensibilities is “When the World is Sick.” This tune is originally a lamenting tag at the end of an obscure (and certainly non-Christian) song by Montreal indie collective Thee Silver Zion Memorial Orchestra. After a litany of the world’s ills including “our dead marines,” the singer repeats the hopeful realistic mantra, “When the world is sick/can’t no one be well/but I dreamt we was all beautiful and  strong.” Kentopp and co take the haunting line and repurpose it as a Taize-styled Confession. Some parables of the Kingdom are just too powerful not to be used liturgically for the Kingdom.

I was able to talk to Richard a bit about some of his thoughts on worship music, what it means to play music that makes sense to an increasingly post-Christian culture in a cultural center like Austin, and his outlook on pastoring and including musicians.

Hopeful Realism: I was checking out the blog you keep and was curious to have you elaborate on your four reasons why you don’t sing praise and worship songs?  It seems like your four reasons really boil down to two reasons: “they’re not good” & “they’re unintelligible to someone outside of that culture.”

Richard Kentopp: That post is getting commented on in a lot of ways. That was what I was thinking that day. Not every day am I thinking all of those things in those ways. I think that post came out a bit negative; I’m generally trying to be more constructive. I will say that I do think those songs work well for some people. I know people who deeply connect with God through Matt Redman’s music and through his ministry and through their church singing those songs. But what I think has been lost, and one reason why the church in general is hemorrhaging young people, is our ability to make music that makes sense both musically and lyrically to young people.

I think you’re right, that music makes sense to people who grew up listening to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” & “Heart of Worship.” But from a very young age, a lot of Christians, myself included, don’t connect with “youth group music.” There are plenty of people that need to be given the vocabulary with which to worship God, and have a hard time singing those songs. The church has done a pretty poor job –giving outsiders a chance to connect. I always try to plan for our worship gatherings from the perspective of someone having their very first worship gathering experience. What I’ve found is that success lies in getting the people who have been coming forever to come around that.

I often say to them, “You’re a giving member, you’re a leader at this church, I don’t really care what you think of our music. But I want you to tell me if you think its not going to connect with your friends or your coworkers, then you can give me critique and I’ll listen to it.” We’re on a mission. I’m not there to provide an emotional experience on Sundays, I’m there to help connect them to God and connect them to each other.  Emotions will inevitably happen.

HR: I’m reminded of a line in Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “If we want to care for the ‘lost souls’ of our society, the best way we can reach out to them is to offer them the richest resources of the Church.” I think that includes the really vibrant language of the church. With regards to language, what makes you look at a text and say, ‘we could really do that well, and it might connect in a new and surprising way’?

RK: The follow-up post to the one you mentioned, listed what sort of songs we do. As far as hymns go, I don’t have any problem changing hymns. I’m not a purist. I think that it makes sense to update theologically or otherwise.

For instance, one of the ones that we’re working on, “We Are Waiting Blessed Savior.” The music is really simple but the lyrics are great. So I took these several hundred year old lyrics and plopped them into new music. One of the lines was, “We are waiting blessed Savior/for a reunion heart to heart/with our dear ones over the river.” Every time we sing things like that or “Sweet By and By,” theologically, I have a hard time finding backup that we’ll see our loved ones in such a state in our resurrection bodies. It became problematic when we were doing a funeral for one of our folks. As a pastoral move, if possible I try to chance some of the lines into more Christ-focused eschatological references.

Linguistically, I try to change thous to yous and thee to you. Basic stuff to make us not feel so alienated over time and space from some of these songs.

HR: Tell me about the difference, for you, between making congregational music and other kinds of recording projects.

RK: I see a real distinction between the music I make “for art’s sake” and what I do with the Gentle Wolves. Honestly, I’m not a big country-rock fan, but because we are where we are, and because that makes sense artistically and linguistically to people in Austin, we choose to do that. When I made my record, my goal was to make something in the language I enjoy, something that expresses me…but that’s not necessarily the goal for the Gentle Wolves and what we do Sunday mornings. My goals are simply different. I want people to easily catch on to melodies and to be able to sing to God. I pray that somehow God’s Spirit will connect them to himself and to everyone around them singing.

HR: I love to ask worship leaders about how they navigate the role of non-Christians in worship. You find folks on every part of the spectrum, in terms of who is able to participate in making music on Sundays.

RK: I’ve actually come about 180 degrees on this.  When I was in college at University of Texas, I was a part of a church in Austin that required you to be a part of a small group for over a year in order to be on stage in any capacity for music. They had a very high buy-in, and I thought that that was good, since you’re leading the people, even if you’re just playing bass or drums or guitar. I’ve found since I’ve been doing this as a worship leader that incorporating people who don’t call themselves Christians into your community can happen really effectively through having them play music.  Musicians love to play.  Honestly, I’ve seen enough fruit; enough people who weren’t Christians become so involved with a Christian community that they start following Jesus before they even realize what they’re doing. And they start to realize that maybe faith is something they’ve been doing, something they’ve been given.

How I counter the previous mindset that I had, is by realizing that I’m up there –not some paragon of moral fiber- I’m a pastor. The musicians that are beside me and with me are a microcosm of the church at large. So I want there to be people investigating faith, but still sharing their gifts with the community.

Download the Gentle Wolves catalog at their bandcamp page and stay tuned as the final few tracks of Vol. IV release in the next couple weeks.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish

05 Mar Chris Breslin
March 5, 2014

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at allgather.org.

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

Speaking on TheoMedia: Is the Bible Media Savvy?

02 Mar Andrew Byers
March 2, 2014

I got to spend my Saturday at St John’s College at Durham University for a preaching conference sponsored by Cranmer Hall and Fresh Expressions. The theme was “Preaching in the 21st Century.” We were asking questions about the nature of the ancient communicative act of the sermon, wondering about its relevance in our current contexts and pondering how we might ply this craft with theological depth and cultural sensitivity.

As one of the speakers, I was asked to share about TheoMedia. It is always such an honor to talk about material I have written in hopes of serving the church. Below is a YouTube link to my talk, should there be any interest. It provides a good overview of the book. Here is a sampling of how TheoMedia addresses the idea of preaching:

“Our media exposure today is intense. Many of us are enclosed within a wall of sound bites, images, films, video games, and television shows. We are often too occupied with our communications gadgets to recognize that our senses are overloaded with messages and values sourced solely within our collective selves.

So we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best. No other voice is more precious to hear. No sight is more enthralling than a glimpse of his beauty. In the visual field of glowing signage, in our screen-dominated panorama, in the ubiquitous pastiche of glossy ads, our eyes need to catch some glance of the holy. Into the cacophonous din of our age, into the droning buzz of white noise, into the clamor of ringtones and beeps, we need the sonic boom or the gentle whisper of a word from the Lord.” TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 225–26.

Here is the video link:

TheoMedia: Is the Bible Media Savvy?

The Media Product of the Pastor-Theologian (Theological Writing, or Faithful Congregation?)

05 Feb Andrew Byers
February 5, 2014

Theologian = Writer.

That is often how we understand vocational theology. We equate theologians with academic writing. The fruit of theology is a book.

And certainly, those of us doing theology and biblical studies within academic domains are required to write.

Everyone in every job has to demonstrate some evidence of “output.” What do theologians have to show for their hard work? Books and journal articles. Academic theologians are assessed and measured by their writing output. In this model, the better theologian is the one writing the most articles and books at the highest quality.

Pastor-Theologians as Writers…?

But how well does this model work for theologians whose vocational domain is not the academy, but the local church? Are the best pastor-theologians those writing the most essays and books at the highest quality?

The hyphen in “pastor-theologian” creates quite a bit of vocational tension. To fulfill the “pastor” bit, there will be inevitably be less writing of books and articles. As Jason Byassee has commented in an interview on this blog, congregations should be allowed to beckon their pastor out of the quiet study to the hospital bed, graveside, or pulpit.

Does the “theologian” side of “pastor-theologian” therefore suffer because the “pastor” dimension limits the amount of theological writing?

The answer depends on how we define “theology.”

Congregations as Published Theology

I think we can agree that Paul could be classified as a “pastor-theologian.” As such, he did not publish theological tomes. One of the greatest Christian theologians of the early church, he did not leave us with sustained systematic reflections on the Incarnation of Christ or the Doctrine of the Church.

He left us letters. The media product of Paul the Theologian is a collection of his correspondences with localized churches.

But Paul seems to exalt another media product higher than his letters. The primary media product of a pastor-theologian may actually be a faithful congregation:

“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” 2 Cor 3:2

The strongest attestation of Paul’s work as a pastor-theologian was not a published monograph or collection of essays but a publicly visible community of Christians. He seems content to construct his vocational reputation not on his academic feats but on his pastoral work in forming congregations.

More could be said. And of course, the media product of a pastor-theologian need not be either theological writing or faithful congregations. It could well be both. And the disciplines of theology and pastoral ministry inform and enrich the other. As a writer, I am in no way interested in diminishing the task of writing in the pastoral office.

But as it turns out, today is my day in the chaplain’s office, and pastoral appointments await….

Magic and Technology in Harry Potter

02 Feb Andrew Byers
February 2, 2014

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Let me add a decade-late “amen” to all my friends who avidly read the Harry Potter books while I was busy reading Dostoyevsky and New Testament commentaries (though I have no regrets about time spent in Dostoyevsky… and in at least some of the commentaries).

The HP series was better than I had expected. Honestly: I am blown away. J.K. Rowling totally had me. A hunk of my heart will probably always be in a place called Hogwarts (though a slightly bigger hunk lingers in Middle Earth).

Along with adding much belated hurrahs, I will add a few belated comments on one of the negative aspects of HP’s reception among Christians: the dangers and allure of MAGIC.

I was personally untroubled by Rowling’s treatment of magic (I find HP as an exemplar in the genre Tolkien has called “Faerie,” but more on that anon). I do recognize, however, that in certain cultural contexts (like some settings in nearby Scotland) interest in magic has gotten quite out of hand.

What I want to point out here is that the use of magic in Harry Potter entailed a commentary likely unintended, and perhaps more influential than the discourse on occultic dabbling. I am referring to a commentary on what Jacques Ellul called la technique.

“Magical” is “Technical”

The magic of HP works largely because of technique. To be sure, Harry himself is endowed with special talents, and his wand can seem to have a mind of its own. But for the most part, magic must be mastered and utilized through a rigorous degree of study and applied techniques. The wand must be waved just so, the ingredients for the potion must be measured out then stirred with precision, incantations must be enunciated properly.

Magical is technical.

I really like how Rowling removed industrial era technology from the magical world. Arthur Weasley remains intrigued by Muggle technology, but when it is time for cooking or washing up in his own kitchen, his wife places utensils under a spell. Rather than sending a text to alert the wedding guests of a Death Eater assault, Kingsley Shacklebolt (what an awesome name!) relays the news via his “patronus.”

In spite of the absence of post-industrial and digital technology, HP-magic is in many respects highly technical. Futurologist and Scifi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

His point is that technology can be so advanced that it mystifies us as much as the supernatural power of a love potion or a violent curse. And today, for most of us, the technology at our fingertips (literally) is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and, well, magical. The purveyors of technology are quite pleased for this to be the case. (Anyone scrolling through this post with Apple’s “Magic Trackpad”?)

The Magical-Technical Society

When Jacques Ellul used the term “technique,” he was referring to a cultural mindset imperceptible to most of us because it is so all-encompassing. This paradigm tends to view people, raw material, creation, etc. as means to an end; often unconsciously, it tends to elevate productivity over relationality. The acquisition of power through a variety of instrumentation—this is often the result of “the technological society.”

Ellul also reminds us that magic itself, as unscientific and un-technological as it seems, is nonetheless an expression of technique: “Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures…”[1].

My point here is that magic and technology can be quite comparable in functionality and disposition. And what many Christian critics of HP may have missed is that “technique” may be a more dangerous threat to our world today than occultic dabbling.

“Horcuxes, not Hallows”

Yet through her portrayal of magic, I think Rowling has providing a rather forceful critique of technology and the ethos of Ellul’s la technique. That critique can be summed up in this powerful slogan: “HORCRUXES, NOT HALLOWS.”

Harry and Ron—though not the more sensible Hermione—were tempted by the prospect of wielding the Hallows, those instruments of magical power capable of rendering their possessor “Master of Death.” Their task, however, was to destroy other instruments—the material objects in which Voldemort had embedded fragments of his soul. Rather than lustfully seeking the most powerful technical instrument of the non-technological magical world, the Elder Wand, Harry opted to destroy the objects invested with evil power.

In this respect, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are comrades with Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. This is because Tolkien’s Ring of Power is what Rowling calls a “Horcrux.” Resisting the allure of power, these heroes and heroine destroyed the evil works of our hands.

The task is technical… and magical.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (tr. John Wilkinson; New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 24.

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

14 Jan Chris Breslin
January 14, 2014

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Review of ‘TheoMedia’ at Christianity Today (And Notes on Reviewing Books)

10 Jan Andrew Byers
January 10, 2014

As a writer, there is little else more rewarding—or unnerving!—than realizing that someone has given your work close attention. I am just so thrilled that Christianity Today has been willing to give some space to discussing my book TheoMedia; and I am so thankful to Jeff Haanen for his careful review.

Some Notes on Reviewing Books
It is a funny thing, reviewing someone’s book. On the same day Haanen’s review of TheoMedia was published at CT, my own review was published of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. Having just written on media technology, I understand how painstaking the writing process can be. You hope reviewers will be gracious.

But you certainly hope they will be honest as well.

The professional book review is when one’s work gets tested with fire (to draw on Paul’s metaphor of ministry as construction work in 1 Cor 3:10–15). If the labor of writing was shoddy and the final product unstable, then it is actually the job of the reviewer to expose the weak and irresponsible workmanship. This enterprise of reviewing books should not be understood as the snarky privilege of elitist critics but as the critical task of the church’s thinkers. There is a lot of shoddy workmanship built on false premises. Just as the Christian prophets were to evaluate the public messages of fellow prophets in the Corinthian worship service, so fellow thinkers need to prod and tap on these public offerings made in the form of books. There is too much to read already. Reviewers help us sift. They help us separate the wheat from the chaff—not only by helping us identify which books are good or bad, but also by helping us sift through the wheat and chaff within individual books.

The Christian book review is therefore an expression of the ancient disciplines of discernment.

I am pleased that TheoMedia passed muster at CT, and hopeful that it will be of service to the church as we negotiate digital culture as the people of God.

(And when you find some of the chaff, let me know!).

Favorites of 2013

31 Dec Chris Breslin
December 31, 2013

As 2013 winds to a close and Auld Land Syne and college football fill our ears and eyes, I (Chris) have always found it a profoundly beneficial and thanks-generating exercise to think back on the year and compile some lists.  Don’t construe our lists as necessarily “best ofs,” there are plenty of those to be had around the internet, rather as favorites- moments or events or artifacts- where each of us has savored something of the goodness of the Lord.  Without further ado…

Andy’s Favorite Hikes of 2013

Catbells, Lake District (England)
CatbellsFor our 15-yr anniversary, Miranda and I spent a few days in the Lake District. it may well be our favorite place on earth. We had a number of good hikes while there, but one that stands out is the hike up Catbells. Though not very high (500 metres or so), the summit affords a dramatic 360 degree view, with Derwent Water to the East, Skiddaw and Keswick to the North, and the Derwent Fells stretching up to Buttermere to the West. At the end of the hike we sat in our Vauxhall Zafire and listened to The Lumineers, a new find at that point. Later that day we ended up in a pub in Ambleside where we played Scrabble over a pint.
It does not get more romantic than that, folks (of course, at 15 years of marriage with 4 kids, just having an uninterrupted conversation is quite a romantic venture).

 

Loch Morar, West Highlands (Scotland)
Loch MorarSomeone graciously gave us the use of their holiday home on the West Coast of Scotland over the summer. One of our favorite moments of our lives was hiking around the northern shore of Loch Morar. The vistas were of dark green, rugged mountains crowning the water… which is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And legend tells that it is haunted by the aquatic monster “Morag” (though we escaped his clutches that day).

 

Camasunary Beach, Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Camasunary BeachPossibly my favorite family hike of all time with my wife and kids was on the Isle of Skye during the same holiday trip. We took a ferry to this rugged, massive Isle and parked the car on the side of a narrow strip of road from Broadford to Elgol just after a downpour. We took a path over some gentle slopes and ended up on a ridge granting us views of what ma be the most jagged, rock-splintered skyline I have ever scene, that of the Cuillin Hills. These are not very high by the standards of the North American Rockies or the European Alps, but they are dramatic to behold and apparently quite difficult even for professional climbers. We took a sharp descent down into a valley where we found the abandoned Camasunary Beach. Yes, in blasting wind and 55 degrees F, my kids wanted to wade in the sea. And yes, I had to go with them. But it was glorious, ya know?
We ended the day at a hostel adjacent to The Old Inn in Carbost. Miranda and I were surrounded by our 4 healthy kids who had just skirted the Cuillins on a 5-mile hike. We were sitting at a darkwood table drinking pints of stuff brewed with water straight from the same hills, having just placed an order for fish and chips. It was one of those unforgettable Moments.

Chris’ Favorite Music of 2013

This Side of Jordan- Mandolin Orange

imageI first listened to this record in the car on the way to Black Mountain, NC for a very special trip before Titus was born.  I’m not sure I could pick a better soundtrack for Piedmont road tripping than these delicate Southern sounds. Knowing Andrew and Emily, who make up the band’s core, and Jeff Crawford, who produced it (as well as plenty other of the album’s  fine players), I couldn’t be more proud of them or pleased with such a gorgeous label (Yep Roc records) debut.  I especially appreciate the third track, “There Was a Time,” (maybe a bit of a Neil echo?) with its lovely piano solo and crushing lyrics (“there’s no gold on either side of the Mississippi/no silver in this world left to find/precious metals and precious memories/slip away, slip away from your fingers and your mind”).  In the midst of loss and sorrow, whiskey waltzes, and clovers, TSoJ is a redemption-haunted album, looking for and occasionally even finding hope on Jordan’s banks.

Haw- Hiss Golden Messenger

imageTrue story: a few months ago I sold Mike Taylor (HGM frontman) a bike.  I’m thankful he paid me, but I’m also a bit gratified just to get to imagine him weaving apocalyptic tales as he navigates our fair Bull City on that single-speed.  Haw expands on Taylor’s previous offerings of Southern transplanted Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk.  With a voice like Van and kaleidoscopic writing like John of Patmos, HGM has become an office listening staple.  Maybe, just maybe, Taylor’s bike commuting signals something the record also communicates, a love and a tie to a certain place (the album title shares a name with a river that snakes just south of town). I found and enjoyed in this album the unique merging of some pretty lofty ideas and concepts with mostly grounded, gritty, specific people and places.

Debris- Roman Candle

imageRoman Candle was one of the first “local bands” I got into when I moved to NC. Little did I know then, when I saw them en-trance the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd in support of Wee Hours Revue, that they’d grow into an outfit (now in Nashville, considerably less local) that would follow so closely alongside my own interests and forays into the intersection of theology and the arts. Skip and Timshel breathe the kind of subtle explorations into beauty’s fleeting power and revelation’s mystery that folks like Rilke, Eliot, and Ms. O’Conner articulate most artfully. Logan’s musicianship and production on songs like “Small Time” and “Not Strangers Anymore” doesn’t just prop up those lovely lyrics, but at times actually takes over the storytelling altogether. I can’t recommend this album more. Get lost in the title-track dream and perhaps you’ll find out you knew where you were all along.

Joel’s Favorite Books of 2013

Due to parenting a toddler, remodeling a new home, supporting an entrepreneur wife and some other personal craziness, my reading suffered quantitatively, but I don’t believe it suffered qualitatively. Here are some of my favorite reads.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

GileadI picked up this brilliant novel at the turn of 2012 to 2013, with a subsequent re-reading in the summer of 2013. Man oh man. I loved it for at least 3 reasons.

First, it is beautifully written. I found myself reading, and re-reading aloud just to hear the words roll off my tongue. I know that sounds weird, but trust me. I could easily fill an entire post of Robinson’s beautiful one-sentence masterpieces of language.

Second, Gilead is one of the most profound resources of pastoral theology I’ve come across. Robinson’s main character’s reflections on the work of the pastor were profound, moving, sobering and inspiring simultaneously.

Third, Gilead alludes to John Calvin often. I think this book presents a way of being theologically Reformed that I find to be beautiful, under-appreciated, subversive and right. Much more needs to be said about this. Stay tuned.

Unapologetic, Francis Spufford

unapologeticI’ll join the bandwagon and add my accolades for this fascinating book. Spufford gives an “a defense of Christian emotions.” In and of itself, I find this approach refreshing and interesting.

Though I certainly don’t agree with every nuance, Unapologetic is funny, challenging, unsettling, moving, passionate, and witty. His re-telling of the Jesus story in the “Yeshua” chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. The refrain “more can be mended than you know” will reverberate in my mind’s ears for a long, long time.

 TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Andrew Byers

TheoMedia Pic 3Humor me for a second while I play for the home team. Andy Byers is a co-blogger at Hopeful Realism, a very close personal friend, and a mentor in ministry.  In Andy Byers, I think the church has been given an absolute gift of a thinker/scholar and shepherd/pastor. I’m completely biased here.

 

Chris’ Favorite Moments of 2013

TITUS ELIOT BRESLIN

imageThis year has undoubtably been (confirmed by Instagram!) the “Year of the Titus” for us. Since we found out we were pregnant in early 2013, through a hot summer pregnancy, to an early September arrival, and the last few challenging and precious months, we’ve truly known and experienced God’s love, generosity and grace in new ways.  For this reason, the ‘Titus Event’ seemed too big to even belong on a list.

Mako & the Four Quartets (January)

imageThrough some happy circumstances, the Gathering Church was blessed to host internationally renowned artist Makoto Fujimura in January.  Mako was in Durham for the Four Qu4rtets exhibit at Duke and did us the pleasure of speaking to our congregation and sharing lunch with some of our artists. I cannot stress how inspirational his work with IAM, his humility and gentleness, and his imagination for creativity and generativity has been for me and our congregation.

Chickens Lay Eggs (April)

imageLast November Rach surprised me with a very special gift for my thirtieth birthday: three day-old chicken hatchlings. I thus began my illustrious career as a (sub)urban chicken farmer, by naming those three little ladies, born on All Saints Day, after saints (Ambrose, Augustine, & Basil…Brosey, Augie, & Baz respectively). After a tragic hawk incident (RIP Baz & Augie), and the addition of two new pullets (Jackie Joyner Kersey & FloJo!), we moved into spring expectant to hardboil our own Easter eggs. The amount of care, expectation, delight, and learning that took place over that time was really special to our family. It oddly put me and my one year -old girl Noa on similar footing as we went out to the coop day after day looking for the first egg, only finally (in April, pretty late for layers) to discover a lovely brown orb in the laying box that had been so empty for so long. Since, I’ve learned how to cook eggs about 10 different ways and we’ve enjoyed being able to gift eggs to neighbors. These hens have truly blessed our family and taught about everything from grieving to waiting to eating.

2 Funerals and a Wedding (Summer, November)

NoaFlowerGirl

This year was a bittersweet year of firsts in my ministerial career. In the summertime, I was honored to officiate the wedding of my sister-in-law and now brother-in-law Ruth and Luke Taylor. What a joy to do their distance premarital counseling through Google hangout, and what an honor for them to entrust me with such a task as a newbie! I look forward to seeing God’s Love through their love continue to blossom and flourish in the years to come.  Later in the year I was also honored to lead my first two funerals, the first for someone I never knew when she was alive, the second in November for my dear uncle Danny. Danny’s service truly encapsulated a remarkable and eclectic life of faith, hope and love.  Following a packed church  service with more eulogies than we had time for, we walked across A1A to the beach for a flyover (fitting for a career air traffic controller) and a paddle out (even more fitting for a salty lifelong surfer). The process of and preparation for these funerals has certainly been a source of God’s mercy and a reminder and vision of the sort of Hopeful Realism possible only by means of Christ’s Spirit and Resurrection.

Joel’s Favorite Parenting Moments of 2013

2013 was my first full-year as a parent. Here are some favorite snapshots.These aren’t so much flash-in-the-pan moments, but recurring moments. Sweet and beautiful in their own right.

Vaccinations

photo-2My little boy looks at me, shocked, that I would allow such a thing. How often is it necessary to bring discomfort into your child’s life in order to do an ultimate good for them?

 

Playing chase

photo-3I chase Henry all around our house. There usually comes a point in which he realizes that he cannot run from me, that he will be caught. At that point, Henry stops and starts running toward me instead. There is a metaphor here.

Being loved by him

photoHenry is at the age where he desires to show love to us. Giving not just receiving. It’s been a difficult month (long story) and my wife Mandy was recently overcome with emotion. Henry stopped his playing, walked from another room, approached her, said, “hey” and gave her a hug and a kiss.

I’m learning a lot and enjoying a lot in this parenting journey.

Andy’s Favorite Fiction Moments of 2013

3) Thinking about the critique of media culture in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.

 

HP2) Realizing the Triwizard Cup was a portkey while readying Harry Potter for the first time.
1) Revisiting Middle Earth after my wife bought me a hardback version of The Hobbit.
 

Here

25 Dec Joel Busby
December 25, 2013

He came and he comes. He is here. This is good news of great joy. It’s the story of Christmas. It happens to be all our hope.

May I remind you?

If he is here, then he is also there.

There in the places you need him most. There in the real stuff. There in your failures and fatigue. There in the darkness and loss and grief and sadness. There where you’ve run out of ideas or energy, where you are finding you don’t have what it takes. There in the worry and the stress and the guilt. There when you are stressing about money, about future, about direction. There when you realize you aren’t really stressing about money or future or direction per se, but about your worth as a person. There in those things you wish no one to know. There in the crazy-anxious-sleepless-night-mind-racing thoughts. There where you keep running up against your limitations. There where you are swearing that this time will be different. There in feelings of emptiness and purposelessness. There where you realize your tendency to be awkward. There in your insecurity, pain, doubt, loneliness. There where you find yourself afraid and unsure and weak and needy.

He is here. He is there. Doing his best work. Filling it all, making it new.

Here. There. With us.

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