Category Archives: Art & Theology

Deeper Well

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

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.

JUSTIN 2

JUSTIN CROSS | An Artistic Project We Need to Back… Immediately

Dear Readers:

I have a number of friends God has jammed to the brim with gifts for bringing theology, pain, beauty, darkness, and joy into musical expression. When we deal with the most poignant realities of life, we must regularly appeal to more artistic media forms to honor the complexity and depth. We need songs and poems. We need singer-songwriters.

Justin Cross is one of these freakishly gifted friends of mine. And he needs some help. A good many singer-songwriters live in this odd tension of being gifted for song, yet unable to bring their artistic labors to birth without the practical necessities of expensive studio time and costly technical equipment. Justin has an album and it needs to make an appearance. We need songs that are honest about sorrow and pain yet pulsing with hopefulness, lunging lyrically toward some distant light, however faint.

His project is “Hope Where It Lies.” As of today he is $875 shy of his budgeted target of $3000 to see this album come to life. There are nine days left of the campaign.

I am writing this post to ask you to join me in helping him. It is a plea I can make with absolute confidence in the quality of work Justin is putting out.

Here is the link at indiegogo. And this is Justin describing the album from the indiegogo webpage:

“Hope Where It Lies” is a concept album. It tells the story of a man from youth to adulthood to the deathbed (and beyond?). The songs range from personal and reflective confessionals to rollicking and rowdy protest songs. The story is simple: It’s about a life from beginning to end. It’s about brokenness, heartache, joy, redemption, and (of course) hope.

I should also say that Justin’s work in this album is really special to me personally because he was at my side wrestling with issues of cynicism and disillusionment while I was writing Faith Without Illusions and developing the main idea driving this blog, the idea of “Hopeful Realism.”

This album comprises songs for the hopeful realist, my friends.

If you like what you see at the indiegogo site, check out his page at Bandcamp. Among the offerings, there is an Advent album ready to download….

a-long-time-ago

Star Wars & the Gospel of John: Thoughts on Narrative Openings

I was teaching the Gospel of John to a group of university student ministers and someone at some point made reference to the opening of Star Wars. The reference got my mind rolling about how these two epic (and cosmic!) stories begin.

First, lets look at Star Wars:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

What a beginning, right? Instantly, that blue script foregrounding outer space grasps our attention. And then blasts John Williams’ triumphant musical score. Oooh, this is gonna be good. I saw the film as a 4-year old in the late 1970s in some beat-up cinema in Canton, GA. Good times.

Let’s now compare George Lucas’ narrative opening of Episode IV with the fourth evangelist’s opening of his majestic Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The Prologue of John, especially 1:1–5, is jam-packed with allusions to Genesis 1. “In the beginning” is an explicit appeal to the opening of Israel’s Scriptures. “Word” echoes the means of Creation: by divine speech (“and God said”). John’s reference to “Light,” “Darkness,” and “Life” also point back to Genesis 1.

A New Hope begins in media res, that is, in the middle of an ongoing story (the scrolling yellow text clues us into what is happening). The Gospel of John begins at Creation’s first breath. There is nothing prior to “in the beginning.” John takes us directly back not just to a “long time ago,” but to the birth scene of the cosmos.

And here is another major difference between the narrative openings of these two epic stories: Star Wars is signified as a story disconnected from our actual lives, whereas the Fourth Gospel forces us to rethink our entire life in reference to its story.

Here is what I mean…. “A long time ago far, far away” indicates something that happened too far in the past to have any bearing on the present, and too far in distance to have any bearing on our current location.

“In the beginning was the Word,” however, reminds its earliest readers (Jewish Christians) of the epic story that had shaped their lives and the lives of their ancestors, a story they had known from earliest childhood, the grand story of Israel’s Scriptures, the story of the Creating and Redeeming God. The fourth evangelist’s narrative is to be understood in reference to that familiar, close-to-home story. It may be “long ago,” but it is certainly not far away—it is the language of their personal and communal lore.

And what John was insisting is that this familiar story had to be reread and reconsidered through Jesus.

“In the beginning was THE WORD” compels a Christological reworking of the familiar cosmic tale that had heretofore shaped their lives, their theology, their worship. The Word did not just become flesh—Jesus took up residence within the age-old story of Israel and Israel’s God.

He exploded that story’s narrative boundaries and redefined it. Nothing will ever be the same again.

When we watch Star Wars, we can enjoy a story that is distant from us, disconnected from our lives and entirely out of our orbit.

But when John’s Gospel was read amidst early Christian assemblies, it was instantly clear from Jewish hearers that this was a story close to home, embedded within their veins. This account of Jesus cannot be heard or read as an intriguing fantasy.

It is the story of their own lives that must be reread and reheard through the risen Christ.

Bifrost Arts The Cry of the Poor

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 2, ft “By His Wounds”)

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?”  And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)
Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Isaac Wardell:  This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference.  I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating.  Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship.  But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations.  We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches.  Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship.  I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions.  I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…

The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference.  LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship.  We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds.  Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31].  God says that he’s on the side of the poor.  God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.

In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing.  You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18].  You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27].  You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20].  You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful?  How can I follow you?”  He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].

Bifrost Arts- Liturgy, Music & Space from josh franer on Vimeo.

We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth.  People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”

I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about.  Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics.  There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.”  This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things.  We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.

HR:  How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?

IW:  I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs.  I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature.  You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor.  There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.”  You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that.  The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience.  The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’  You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions.  It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals.  We get really excited about this merciful God.  And it’s true.  But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’

This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference.  We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?”  Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event.  People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

HR:  Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?

IW:  This event will be two parts.  This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah).  We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”

The second is very practical.  Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship.  The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities…  We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship.  One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship.  There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship.  One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences.  And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.

HR:  You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters.  Who are you most excited about?

IW:  We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us.  Greg’s here in Charlottesville.  He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister.  He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”

We’re really excited about John Witvliet.  He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship.  He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)
(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

Makoto Fujimura, who’s a Nihonga painter and founder of the International Arts Movement, will present on creativity as a way of building communities.

Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community.  I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying.  One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world.  Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside.  They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.

At times they’ve been controversial.  They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes.  They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer.  I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship.  Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.

You can go online to see some of the other workshops.

Bifrost Arts The Cry of the Poor

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 1, ft “Psalm 46″)

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  Tell us about the genesis of Bifrost Arts.

Isaac Wardell:  While I had been living up in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) [serving at Resurrection Presbyterian with Vito Aiuto], I had been quietly developing an ethos for approaching church music.  I had been studying music in college, studying hymnody, had a strong classical music background, and had been living in an urban, post-Christian community.  Incidentally, for about ten years, I had zero exposure to the “Christian culture industry.”  I was working in church plants which meant that I was deciding what we were listening to.  I wasn’t listening to Christian radio, but was going through hymnals and psalters finding ways for us to worship.  In the summer of 2007, we started doing a series of events we called “Sacred Music Festivals” where in small spaces we would  invite people to come and talk about sacred music and about this crazy novelty of people singing together- probably 75% Christians or religious people, but 25% or so just interested in esoteria.  Those events led to a partnership with Rev. Joseph Pensak, ministering locally to college students, as well as connections with other local churches and pastors who helped.

I was in my twenties at the time and probably felt a stronger burden about church music needing to be more excellent, more beautiful, more soulful…rather than reactive, creative.  That’s what I really excited about, especially because of my context.  I was working in a cultural context where those were the real values.  And much Christian music had such a reputation for being facsimile, consumer-driven and draconian.

HR:  Was there a major shift moving from Brooklyn to Charlottesville?

IW:  Bifrost has changed a lot.  As you said, now I work in Charlottesville, VA, essentially in a megachurch.  There are suburban evangelicals, brilliant minds like James Hunter and Nicholas Wolterstorff, college town culture and an evermore diversifying racial complexion.  When I think about how Bifrost can help the church, the idea of being aesthetically innovative and challenging the church to think about the arts in a much more deeply theological way is more of just one sliver of what we’re doing now.  We do much more education and thinking about how we can educate congregations, worship committees, and people involved in planning worship services to think about their way of approaching worship services.

While I’m really excited about releasing this record in the coming months, I’m actually starting to feel more and more that these church curricula that we’re putting out and these conferences and small events are the most helpful thing that we do.  It’s not so much just modeling this sort of ethos but really unwrapping it and showing some biblical concepts that you can bring into your congregation that can really give your congregation a new vocabulary for worship.

When I first came to Trinity it became obvious that our worship vocabulary was so impoverished.  People have “traditional-contemporary,” “high church-low church,” people talk about being relevant…all these things that are really not very descriptive about what the bible has to say about worship.

HR:  Tell me a little bit about a tension you might feel in your work between tradition and innovation.  Singing hymns in new contexts seems to have gained a lot of momentum and quite a following over the last decade or so.  I’ve noticed that the times when the Bifrost records do cover hymnody there isn’t an automatic impulse to necessarily “re-tune” the setting.

The hymn conversation is a fascinating one.  My personal thinking has evolved a lot in the last ten years.  The last thing I want to do is offend anybody, especially my friends who are involved in setting old hymns to new music.  A lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches didn’t grow up singing hymns.  I grew up singing popular Christian music.  When I got to college, I discovered hymns- the depth, beauty, poetry…all these things that were clearly missing from my previous worship experience.  A lot of people have that experience through RUF and others setting those hymns to new music.  That wasn’t exactly my experience because I went to school on a music scholarship, and was involved in a really traditional music program.  My discovery was in the classroom.  My falling in love with them wasn’t in a context of innovation, but rather just falling in love with them for what they were.  I have a more romantic relationship with the organ and the hymnal.  I don’t have a personal history of thinking of “old, dead hymns.”  When I first heard “Be Thou My Vision” it was a new beautiful, adult experience for me.

Part of what I did in my twenties when I was working at these church plants was just opening up the hymnal.  We didn’t have an organ.  It wasn’t some kind of evangelistic decision.  We were just trying to interpret these hymns in a faithful way.  If you listen to the Bifrost records, to a song like “Just A Closer Walk With Me” that’s just me playing the song.  There’s strings and a particular musical perspective that I’m bringing to it, but we certainly weren’t trying to turn anything upside down on its head and we weren’t trying to indict anything.

HR:  Inevitably every artist makes some sort of aesthetic decision.

IW:  Sure.  And I’ve spent the last four or five years digging even more deeply into the way I feel.  At this point I think I’ve come full-circle in thinking that the problem that hymns address is obvious.  Everyone can agree that in turning on [Christian] radio, the music doesn’t address real theological questions, all the facets of the human heart.  And you open up hymnals and they address that problem.  We can agree on that.  Beyond that, to say that hymns are the answer to all of our modern worship problems is problematic.  If you bring discernment and a historical ear to your hymnal you’re going to find some beautiful things in there, some things that were beautiful because of their context, and some things that are not beautiful because of the failures of their times.

Our children’s choir came in yesterday singing “Jesus Loves me This I Know.”  In this and a plethora of other hymns written between 1825 and 1925, that great 19th century British period of hymnody, there are a lot of references to dying.   “And when you die Jesus will hold or cradle you.”  It’s alarmingly consistent.  “If I love him when I die/He will take me home on high.”  You look into it historically and you find that during that period of time in the Industrial Revolution is the highest rate of childhood and infant mortality in world history.  In all these Sunday School classes, you have these kids showing up to worship and having to deal with their peers dying.  So you have people in ministry answering those questions.  You can picture those conversations and their attempts at answers that make their way into their music.  Some of these answers seem odd or perhaps even questionable, but for the moment they were appropriate responses in their contexts.  Likewise, you open up the hymnal and you see people answering questions in hymns.  Addressing questions about war, inexplicable suffering and death, globalization and mission; in the best-case scenarios you see these hymns answering the real questions that people are wrestling with in their times.

I don’t think that hymns answer those questions for our time.  What we can learn is to be inspired by our hymnal to actually look at the questions people are asking in our times.  You read James Hunter’s book: central questions about identity, sexuality, what does it mean to be a person, how do we know that life has any value?  Questions about money, human relationships…these are the questions that are on the news every night.  I don’t know that I can turn on the radio and hear Christian music answering these questions.  But I also don’t necessarily know that you open your hymnal and find answers to these questions.

I’d like to issue a call to songwriters not to stop writing songs and just use your hymnal, but to write new things.  The new Bifrost record, and probably any subsequent records, will be all original hymns and worship songs.  It’s important for us to start modeling that.  In some way there’s something incredibly faithless about resigning yourself to saying that “they wrote all this great stuff back there and we’re not capable of writing stuff like that now.”  I’d like to suggest that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaac Watts is the Holy Spirit that can inspire us to write something as beautiful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

HR:  Beyond answering specific questions for a specific place and time, how do you see worship music working within a framework of a ‘theology of desire?’  Your last conference’s curriculum began to explore some of these themes, seeing a human person as primarily affective or liturgical, how do you design worship with music that takes that whole person seriously?  Hymns don’t let you necessarily range the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that perhaps even the most simple praise chorus, that you could pick on all day, may be able.

I’m assuming you’re probably familiar with Jamie Smith and Desiring the Kingdom?  I love Jamie and his writing and teaching, and his new book, Imagining the Kingdom is explicitly about applying that question in a worship context.

For my Presbyterian, Reformed context, one of the main areas of poverty in the PCA’s collective understanding about worship is this understanding of worship as being just a transmission of information.  Presbyterians get really excited about hymns being good theology set to music.  And there’s something to that.  But this fundamental understanding of worship being information and a system of understanding imparted to you so that music is just a vehicle- that’s a terribly small way of understanding what worship is.

In the Liturgy, Music, and Space (LMS) curriculum, we try to give the reader two handles.  On the one hand, worship has a formative aspect; worship forms us to think a certain way.  And worship has an expressive aspect; in worship our love for God is expressed.  Worship is the expression of a whole relationship with God and its also the formation of a whole relationship with God.

That’s what we’re trying to offer, not contemporary-traditional, not high-low, but formative-expressive as the most scriptural worship categorization.  These two qualities are manifest in scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that you see God telling the people, ‘when you worship I want you to do it in the very formative way.’  Even Deuteronomy, he says, ‘I want you to write these truths and hang them in front of your eyes on little leaflets and I want you to write it on your doorposts.’  And even when God is telling the Israelites how to celebrate Passover, he says ‘I want you to set your table, sit down, and you’ll say this prayer, and the oldest son is going to ask the dad this question and the dad will answer in this way…’  This is a very formative prescription for worship.

At the same time, you have all these instances in the scriptures, from the prophets right through the New Testament, where God tells his people, ‘I’m not interested in you just going through the motions of worship, not interested in your feasts and festivals, if your heart is not right and your not being obedient to my word.’  And that’s the expressive part.  There are times throughout the bible that you read of these exuberant expressions, things much more expressive than we’re comfortable with: banging cymbals, beating drums, David’s dancing in the street.  Even in the New Testament where in Peter’s worship services people are accused of being drunk.  There is a very descriptive element of expressive worship in the scriptures.

Isaac Wardell
Isaac Wardell (Photo by Adam Clark)

I don’t think that delineating between praise choruses and hymns is always necessarily helpful or accurate.  The category that we use around here is ‘scripture songs,’ a subcategory being ‘psalms.’  I think those are really important categories to have in this conversation, because the Psalms are a best-case scenario due to the fact that they are super-expressive.  They’re very raw.  They’re more expressive than any Chris Tomlin song.  The Psalms are the psalmists bringing all their whole hearts to God.  But the Psalms are also deeply formative.  The Psalms are really challenging.  They don’t just give you words for what you already feel.  They give you words to grow into.  I think the Psalms have to be our model…you see that from Jesus.  When he went to worship God, he learned how to worship using the Psalms, he sung the Psalms, and in his hour of need, Jesus quoted the Psalms.  When he’s hanging on the cross, he’s not extemporizing.  He’s not just expressing, but he quotes something he would have sung.  You see the Psalms even forming Jesus’s heart and giving him language for how to talk to God.

The Psalms are the starting place and then out of the Psalms you have a criterion from which you can judge how good a praise song is and how good a hymn is.  If you start to see a great disconnect between our hymnody and our psalter or praise chorus catalog and our psalter, it should be clear to us where the poverty is.

But that’s not the way we operate.  We’ve gotten so upside-down in our understanding.  You have both traditional people that would hate it if you brought the emotion of the Psalms into worship, and then there are those who are all about expression, who have made an idol out of emotive expression – so that when you try to make a case that the bible just doesn’t want us to express things we feel but to learn to express things that we ought to feel – they’d react really poorly as well.  I think the psalms are indicting on the state of our worship wars.  The one thing we can agree on is that nobody wants to worship that way.

HR:  I recently interviewed Sarah DeShields from Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  They’re really trying to hold this in tension and use the handles “the liturgy and the shout” to speak of that dialectic of formation and expression.  Interestingly, they’ve wound up doing a few psalm-based texts to do this on a congregational level.

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An Interview with Sarah DeShields of Renovatus Worship Music

Sarah DeShields grew up in near Edinburgh, Scotland in a charismatic church, before studying percussion and moving to the states to serve as music director at Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  I got a chance to talk with her in December about her creative process as a musician and some of her most recent projects.  She released a solo album, The Pilgrim Way in 2011 and an Advent EP, Baloo Lammy (November 12, 2012).  Most recently she put out  a congregational record of original and adapted worship music, The Liturgy & the Shout, from and for her local church.

Hopeful Realism: We’ll start by talking about your own album.  What would you count, on this first record, as your major influences?  What are the main ingredients that went into the making of this album?

The Pilgrim Way

Sarah DeShields: At the time when we were making the record, there were several influences.  One of the main ones was that I was listening to this one album literally everyday called Camino by a violinist named Oliver Schroer.  He recorded this album on El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain. He took equipment with him and recorded in churches or just their feet walking on paths, there are sounds of local people, there are sounds of cows with bells on their necks.  The pace of the whole album…in between, are these incredible, beautiful pieces of his own writing that I’ve never quite heard anything like.  It’s classical music, but it has this really intense spiritual element to it.  It was on everyday, every morning, it was part of my daily journey.  I also had been listening to the music of Hildegard von Bingen, who is a medieval writer and saint that wrote some incredible choral stuff that is calming to listen to…very monastic.  I had those two things rotating all year, so thematically, that’s where I was at and it became part of the album.  I wanted the album to have that feeling of pilgrimage,  contemplation, and meditation.

As far as other influences that came out, my background is in a lot of classical music and I went to school for percussion, so I played a lot of minimalist music.  When I met Jeremy [Rychard Snyder, the producer of the record], he brought a lot of his influences to the table that I loved and connected with.  He’s very influenced by a group called the Bedroom Community.  As a group, they’re very interesting to listen to, because they’re such a strange conglomerate of people and styles.  That electronic/classical/folk thing going on is what Jeremy and I are inspired by.

HR:  I’ve noticed in both your record and the worship album two major themes.  When I listened, I wrote down “space” and “place.”  Both albums, in different ways have a lot of room.  On your record, which you’ve identified as somewhat contemplative, this is not all that surprising, but for a worship record it struck me as unique to have that kind of room to breathe.

As far as place goes, there are some spoken portions to your album, and on the Renovatus record “Burning Coal” actually locates the listener specifically in North Carolina, also remarkable for a worship album.

SD:  I don’t know that we intentionally sought those things out.  It’s really just part of our process.  In the worship context, while we do all of those songs congregationally at our church, they don’t all necessarily sound that way on a Sunday morning.  The purpose of the album is not so that other worship teams can go and learn it and do it on a Sunday, it’s really for our people to experience the story of what those songs are about.

For instance, “Psalm 51,” there is that whole intro…we started with just a Moog and some pedals and it was very eerie and strange and haunting.  For a while we were like, “we’re going to do some other stuff in there right?”  I was so worried about our congregation feeling uncomfortable to such a strong degree that they wouldn’t stick with the song.  The song came together, and that’s still in there.  Jeremy really fought for it.  The song is about brokenness, it is a hefty subject from a broken place and it is intense and it needs to feel intense.  We don’t allow ourselves in worship settings to really feel uncomfortable.  And sometimes that’s just sitting still for a while.  I think that it is easy when it’s something that you put in the background as soaking music, but if you have to engage it, I think it’s a discipline and a gift to have some music that asks to be engaged without having to turn it off.

The Gaelic stuff you hear on my album is my brother-in-law. He was raised on the Isle of Lewis and Gaelic is his first language. Sadly the language is dying out and they don’t teach it on the mainland so I never learned. The stuff you hear is the Apostle’s Creed and a hymn a local pastor wrote for the passing of his elder friends.

HR:  I’d be curious to hear about some of differences between the two versions of “Ye Nations.”

SD:  That’s one of the earliest ever songs for us.  “Psalm 51” was the first one we ever wrote for Renovatus.  “Ye Nations” was the second and it has been a staple for Renovatus since.  It is probably the most ingrained into our worship psyche.  Everyone knows it and I’m sure some people are sick of it by now.  When I did it for my own album, I wasn’t making it for the church per se.  In that way I didn’t feel like I had to care about what people thought of it or their expectations.  That sounds selfish, but it is also a very liberating thing.  It is incredibly important that artists have opportunities to make music despite whether or not it’s “sellable.”  I knew that version might be difficult for some of our people because they’ve heard a different sounding version for so long and didn’t have any other recording of it.  I heard from the grapevine that some folks felt like they were having a hard time accessing it.  And I’m totally fine with that.  When we came to make it for the Renovatus album, we wanted to keep it pretty simple, so I thought, ‘why don’t we just do marimba.’  It still has some of that minimalistic undergirding, but it is really more about the melody.  It just felt right, and I do feel like it was more accessible.  But what was funny on the release night, we tried to keep everything as close to the recording as possible, and everyone was completely engaged in it.  Maybe even more so than normal, because they could all hear themselves sing because there was only one instrument going on.

HR:  How much music on Sundays is original versus covers?  And how do you see this record interacting with the music people are listening to during the week, (contemporary Christian, retuned hymns, etc)?  Where do you guys fit in?

SD:  Usually on a Sunday at least one of our originals is thrown in.  But we do a lot of hymns.  We do a mixture of what’s out there and seems to be connecting with people spiritually, what’s pertinent to the sermon series…  We do some stuff from Bethel out in California.  We’ll do Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, things that everyone knows and can connect with.  We have this part of our worship manifesto as a church that I think is very important is that ‘we will build altars for the people of God.’  We do this to mark what the Lord is doing, the power of testimony and the power of story.  “Psalm 51” came out of a season of brokenness.  There was some death and loss happening in the church and there was also a psalmic series that we were moving through, so it made sense to write something that embodied that.  So these are the altars that we have, and what we raise up, as songs are part of our storytelling- to the world but also to each other.  Altars are to remind each other of what the Lord has done, his faithfulness and his hand over you as a people.

That was our intent when making this album, not reaching a demographic or pushing to a certain market.  I don’t ever really see that happening with the sort of music we’re making, not because it is so unique or crazy.  There are churches doing stuff that is far more creative than what we are doing, but they are probably in obscurity because they don’t resonate with the masses.  I think we’re really okay with that and we’re used to that.  Another part of our church manifesto is that we’re a bunch of misfits.  That’s kind of where we lie.  This music is really for our people, these people.  Going forward that’s always where I want the focus to stay.  Whatever songs we continue to write, they’ll be out of our experience with one another as a community.

Damien Jurado // Maraqopa

2012 Music Review: Twelve Favorites

Over the past several years I’ve gotten in the December habit of compiling lists of my favorite music releases.  While I was in seminary taking preaching classes, I sought out an exercise that would help me enjoy, evaluate, and communicate texts in a creative way to an audience.  Since, at the time, all I was doing was reading and reading and writing and writing about biblical and theological content, I used music reviews as a way to hone my skills.  For about two years I wrote reviews for a small indie music blog out of Macon, GA called the Blue Indian (here is 2010 and 2011).  It was in this time that I realized if you could charitably and critically evaluate content that you sometimes did care deeply for, and some that you just didn’t “get,” and still make a compelling presentation to an audience, you had done most of the logistical tasks of preaching (which is what I wanted to work on).

So I present to you my list of twelve (a cheap way to continue to expand my list and delay decisiveness once more each year) favorite records that came out in 2012.  A brief disclaimer: these are my favorite records of this year, not necessarily the “best.”[1]  They might not be your favorites and for that I don’t apologize.  I may be skewed or inconsistent.  For instance, I’m well aware that half of these selections are from the South (including VA).  I’m also aware that I’m a sucker for M. Ward and the Avetts and unlike the Mumford boys (who came up big last year), they’re near locks on any favorite list I’ll likely write.  Again, I don’t apologize for this, everyone needs these kinds of go-tos.

I don’t have a fixed criteria for this evaluation.  Some of these albums and artists operate within a decisively Christian confession and view of the world, others quite the opposite, and many wrestle somewhere in the middle.  Some tilt towards the traditional, some towards the experimental, most hold both in some sort of tension.  Some are household names, while others share the fate of prophets in their respective hometowns.  I’ve included a Spotify playlist of this list in its entirety as well as a playlist featuring a single song from more than 40 (just wait until the year 2040!) notable releases.  I’d also love to hear, in the comments, some that I may have missed.  Cheers on a great year of music to have enjoyed and blessings on what I hope shapes up to be another.  -CEB

Band of Horses // Mirage Rock
Band of Horses // Mirage Rock

12: Mirage Rock (Columbia)

Band of Horses

These bearded bards have smoothed out some of their previous rolickers into a milder but really interesting album.  They’ve dusted off the legendary Glynn Johns (father of Ethan) for his first production gig in nearly three decades and it really pays off.  You can really hear the Carolina hills amidst the Wilsonian harmonies.

Bowerbirds // The Clearing
Bowerbirds // The Clearing

11: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)

Bowerbirds 

The earthy duo from Upper Air has expanded in number and so has their sound.  This record, grouped with the most recent offerings from Bon Iver, the Rosebuds, and Megafaun, would make for a really oddly cohesive April Base box set: ranging from ambitious and bombastic to charming and homespun.  Between the recurrent wildlife vagabonding and Phil Moore’s strangely entrancing songwriting meter, you are bound to get sucked in by the bare beauty and precious vulnerability of this music.

The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices
The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

10: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Asthmatic Kitty)

The Welcome Wagon

This time around Pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique cobble together a less-overtly Sufjan Stevens-infused collection of hymns and spiritual songs.  Again, the covers are outstanding, ranging from Crowder to the Cure.  The hymns are imaginative appropriations of some lesser-known texts, and Vito has continued to prove himself a worthy auteur and purveyor of surprisingly sacred music in the vein of a Brooklyn-hipster-Reverend Gary Davis.

The Avett Bros // The Carpenter
The Avett Bros // The Carpenter

9: The Carpenter (Universal Republic)

Avett Brothers 

The Avetts were in a pickle on this one.  After working with Rick Rubin on I and Love and You and simultaneously getting flack from longtime fans longing for the mountain-punk of their beginnings and getting lauded by a much much larger audience, this album, their seventh full-length studio record (and 14th total release!) bore many of the pressures of a sophomore album.  Somehow they managed to do it.  In the midst of immense scrutiny and personal and familial trial, they produced a record with genuine warmth of sound and lyrical depth.  In my mind, The Carpenter resists conflation with the Mumford phenomenon (though similarities abound and some might disagree), due in part to the band’s willingness to explore (and fall flat in some cases) while frequently tipping their caps to unabashed influences like Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson.  These influences lie very near the surface but don’t seem as forced or forceful as the literary and biblical allusioneering of their comrades.

Bill Fay // Life Is People
Bill Fay // Life Is People

8: Life Is People (Dead Oceans)

Bill Fay

This record came out of nowhere for me.  I had heard both Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Damien Jurado cover “Be Not So Fearful.”  But Bill Fay was as obscure to me as he actually is.  Tweedy, himself, makes an appearance on Fay’s first album of new material in 41 years. Fay returns the favor with a cover (almost in latter year Johnny Cash fashion) of Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc” in one of the finer moments of the record.  “The Healing Day”  offers a cathartic, eschatological anthem for fans of Cash, Billy Prince Billy, Wilco, and Nick Cave.

M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion
M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion

7: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)

M. Ward

For being a spliced-together collection of songs from the road, Companion sure doesn’t sound like it.  While decidedly less lo-fi than his earlier records, and conspicuously featuring indie sweetheart, Zooey Deschanel (the “She” from his other notable project), “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy” could fit in on an anthology of his best and most characteristic.

Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur

6: Voyageur (Zoe Records)

Kathleen Edwards

This past fall, I’ve countlessly heard, from both sides of the aisle, the bemoaned, “if so-and-so wins the election, I’m moving to Canada.”  Canadian Kathleen Edwards diffuses this by threatening the inverse on the lead track of Voyageur and then shows her hand on this “empty threat.”  Voyageur succeeds through heartbreaking lyrics and vocals, and daring and skilled arrangements.  Even in some of her less poignant moments, she manages to pull off sounding sincere singing about sidecars and pink champagne in a way rivals Kim Kierkergaardashian‘s ability to combine crass and contemplative.

Father John Misty // Fear Fun
Father John Misty // Fear Fun

5: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)

Father John Misty

Best described as a trip, Fear Fun, is part Josh Tillman travelogue and part apocalyptic fantasy.  Woven strands of reality and fiction are incarnated in hazy Laurel Canyon fare.  The result is remarkably more interesting than either the lush harmonies of Tillman’s former gig as drumming Fleet Fox or his intense but often monotonous singing-ax solo fare.  With the album, he chopped off his hair, and was seemingly and suddenly imbued with newfound frontman swagger.  I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if this could this be a neo-Robert Johnston scenario?  While confusing at times, hilarious at others, and shrouded in darkness even in its sunnier moments, FF has to be considered one of the oddest and most enjoyable albums of 2012.

Floating Action // Fake Blood
Floating Action // Fake Blood

4: Fake Blood  (Removador/Harvest)

Floating Action

Black Mountain experimenteur Seth Kauffman teamed with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and toned down some of the sitar from last year’s wonderful but difficult Desert Etiquette to arrive at his most complete work since his solo album Research.  This “conservatism” suits him well, as a little restraint helps the supreme nuance come out in fewer and less labored listens.  The title of the record stems from his observation and frustration at the pervasive ability of “fake blood” (art that doesn’t hurt to make, but safely appears so) to sell records and make fans.  This epitomizes Seth’s ability to surprisingly craft and juxtapose.  After all, when asked about surprising interests and influences, he once listed Saabs, Paula Abdul and Karl Barth in the same sentence.

Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls

3: Boys & Girls (ATO)

Alabama Shakes 

“I feel so homesick.  Where’s my home?  Where I belong or where I was born?” questions Brittany Howard on “Rise to the Sun.”  Her ability to repeatedly package such existential wonderings in, to borrow a buddy’s descriptor, such “gronky” (here think something akin to Led Zep, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner… a funky sonic patina) containers shines.  Throughout this sparkling debut, the Shakes prove that while there is nothing new under the sun, its revolution around the earth and its faithful reemergence can endlessly illumine what we already know in surprising and quite enjoyable ways.

Matthew E. White // Big Inner
Matthew E. White // Big Inner

2: Big Inner   (Hometapes/Spacebomb)

Matthew E. White

Not since Illinois has it been so cool and engrossing to listen to an album that sounds, at times, like a glorified high school marching band jam session.  Like Sufjan’s masterpiece, Matthew E. White (who’s arranged for the Mountain Goats, the Sounds of the South tour and whose backing band has richly ornamented the huge sounding and hugely successful eponymous Bon Iver record) has proven that once you dive in you find the brass and fanfare is actually secondary.  Listen and you’ll be rewarded with a rich lyrical tapestry.  The sacred and the profane touch at times, their threads crawling over each other, combined though not indistinguishable.  At times you wonder if White is miming Randy Newman or Qoheleth as he muses about the sun’s hiding place on “Steady Pace.”  Or when he takes up the slave-song meme of crossing the “Brazos” and explodes into a more than 5 minute long, album-ending chorus of “Jesus Christ, he is our Lord!  Jesus Christ, he is your friend!”

Damien Jurado // Maraqopa
Damien Jurado // Maraqopa

1: Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Damien Jurado 

After warming up with a handful of cover songs and Jurado’s previous release, Saint Bartlett, the Jurado/Richard Swift production tandem has hit full-stride with Maraqopa.  Sometimes enigmatic and others jangly and humorous, the amount of texture, attention, and the nuance kept me listening to this record throughout the whole year.  While his sound has evolved, his writing has remained constant.  He pens “I heard you call my name.  You were outside the door.  How did I not hear you before?” on “This Time Next Year” a parousia anthem whose opening doo-wop chimes are broken up by surf-guitar distortion.  Lines like these are sneaky.  In some ways they underwhelm, but Jurado has developed a penchant for writing such startlingly simple lyrics that lack any semblance dullness or pretension, but manage to strike the hearer as stark and unalloyed.

 


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, upon receiving the honor of “Best American Theologian” in 2001 by TIME Magazine responded, “Best is not a theological category.”  Likewise, I’m not sure “best” is always a great or suitable category for artistic works.