Monday, April 21, 2014

Christian Music: Not Safe and Fun for the Whole Family

I haven't listened to a lot of Christian music in a long time, certainly not on the radio, for reasons I'm sure many of you can guess. But music is a particularly powerful influencer. Good music often carries a lyric into the subconscious and a song can stick in your head for days. For me (and I suspect for most folks) music is an important habit of my mind, whether intentional or unintentional.

For this reason, I've recently been more intentional about the role of music in my need to to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10) and to think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" (Phil 4).

Since the stuff on Christian radio isn't my style, among other things, it doesn't have much power to help me in this endeavor. (It does help many, many Christians "set [their] minds on things above" (Col 3:1), so I won't judge it too harshly, and I chide myself for doing so so disdainfully in the past.)

Fortunately, there is a good amount of "inde" music out there these days that reaches out to me and others like me (and others not like me!). Thanks to sites like Amazon and Noisetrade with their automatic, you-may-also-like suggestion boxes, out-of-the-mainstream music gets easier and easier to find.

Here are some of my recent finds.

As you can plainly see from the cover of their album, The Fourth Wall, The Vespers belie my bias for folk and bluegrass. They could be described as inde folk, or neo-folk, rockin' out their pickin-n-strumin' instruments in their vintage clothing. What you can't see are their at times haunting, at times playful vocals and lyrics. You can sample those here.

The Vespers don't only help us rejoice with those who rejoice, they also help us weep with those who weep, a holistic truth telling.

Note the cover art on Beautiful Things: this is not your typical Christian music scene. Paradox is a significant part of the Christian understanding of truth, and Gungor reminds us of one of the most crucial paradoxes: 

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Psalm-like, "Beautiful Things" opens with doubts and a sense of being overwhelmed and beat down by the ugly things in this world and in our hearts, but it is the refrain that remains in the mind---the reminder, the affirmation, the hope.

Wilder Adkins's Oak & Apple presents new, acoustic remakes of old, beloved hymns. This choice exposes my preference for hymns over other kinds of Christian music. I'm not the only one, apparently, because there have been several projects in this vein of late. I prefer acoustic, folk-oriented albums like this one, but there are a significant number of neo-hymn albums with more pop-rock flavor.

One reason I appreciate these kinds of albums is because, along with familiar favorites, I'm always introduced to hymns I didn't grow up with. I love learning new hymns; the hymn is such a rich heritage, and learning the hymns from outside my own tradition links me to the wide, deep heritage of the faith.

You can find her latest album here.

You might recognize that name. It just so happens that one of my very favorite musicians is our very own Christine Hand. Christine's music appeals to me pretty much for all the same reasons the above albums and artists do: the woman and her band can play their instruments! roots in folk, folk-rock, and blues; soulful, holistic vocals and lyrics. Her song, "The Face of All the World", is one of my long-time favorites, and I often turn to it when I feel overwhelmed by the world and am in need of encouragement and a reminder that God is everywhere and in everything:

You're every sweet sound
You are the cold rain
And every tear that from my eyes will fall for joy or pain
You are the best thing that I have found
And this world is wide and round

I haven't given up "secular" music---as we often like to say, all truth is God's truth. There are many, many songs of all stripes that remind me of Christ or the absence of him, of the glory and the horror of this life; and many songs of many stripes that are just plain fun! But as music is a powerful influencer, it's something we should at times be intentional about. The above albums and artists disciple my mind and nurture my soul. 

Your turn. I'm always on the lookout for good music. Share with us in the comments: What have been some of your favorite finds? What music gives you courage and hope? 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Peeps and the Hope of Resurrection

Every year at Easter, I buy a box of those controversial of Easter candies, Peeps. Large sugar-coated marshmallows, you either love 'em or hate 'em, most folks falling into the later category. Well, I buy a box every year because they were one of my grandmother's favorites. She passed away several years ago of cancer. My first experience with that disease. Like her favorite Easter candy, she was bright and festive and exceedingly kind-hearted---gooey on the inside, you might say. It's been over a decade---almost two (when did I get this old?)---but typing this just now, I'm getting rather emotional. I miss her. I love celebrating her in this way, at Easter time, anticipating the Great Resurrection when one day I'll see her again.

"The Hope of Resurrection" 
Though I have watched so many mourners weep
O'er the real dead, in dull earth laid asleep—
Those dead seemed but the shadows of my days
That passed and left me in the sun's bright rays.
Now though you go on smiling in the sun
Our love is slain, and love and you were one.
You are the first, you I have known so long,
Whose death was deadly, a tremendous wrong.
Therefore I seek the faith that sets it right
Amid the lilies and the candle-light.
I think on Heaven, for in that air so dear
We two may meet, confused and parted here.
Ah, when man's dearest dies,'tis then he goes
To that old balm that heals the centuries' woes.
Then Christ's wild cry in all the streets is rife:—
"I am the Resurrection and the Life."

--Vachel Lindsey

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

That's not in the Bible?! Re-Reading Three Stories You Thought You Knew

We are all products of our environment.  Families, friends, neighborhoods, religious fellowships, and media influence us in more ways than we can possibly understand.

One small but telling example of this is in the way many people (including Christians) remember Bible stories.  We would all like to believe that our knowledge of the Bible or any other religious text is based on things we have actually read, understood, and filed away.  But oftentimes, the stories we remember come from a host of influences, and are different from what the text actually says.  Here are three surprising examples of Bible-story elements which you might have had wrong all this time:

1. Noah was not Mocked by Anyone while Building the Ark
Thanks to Darren Aronofsky's recent movie Noah, the great biblical shipbuilder is back in the news.  Many Christians have gotten upset about all of the artistic liberties that Aronofsky has taken with the text.  What many Bible-readers don't realize is that they themselves have often taken liberties with the text, including one common story element - the presence of mockers while Noah built the ark.  Go read Genesis, chapters 6-7.  You won't find any mention of anyone saying anything to Noah during the time he was building.  Might there have been mockers?  Likely.  But the text doesn't directly support it.

P.S. - The text also says that there were more than 2 of many animals, including 14 of many kinds of livestock and birds.

2. There were no Wise Men or Magi at the Manger
Despite what every nativity scene in the whole world depicts, there were no magi/wise men at the manger the night Jesus was born.  Shepherds, yes.  Angels, yes.  Cows, probably.  But Magi - nope.  Matthew 2 says:

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem...wise men from the east came...and behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced...and going into the house they saw the child."

By the time the Magi show up, Mary and Joseph had apparently had enough time to move out of the manger and find a more suitable temporary living space in a small house or dwelling.  If you consider that later in Matthew 2, Herod decides to kill all baby boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, it is possible that the Magi may not have arrived until Jesus was a toddler.

P.S. - The Bible never says that there were 3 Magi.  It mentions three gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - but never says how many Magi.

3. Jesus did Not Enter Jerusalem During his "Triumphal Entry"
You know the story about how on the Sunday before Passover, Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem riding a donkey, and the people cried "Hosanna!" and they laid palm branches and cloaks at his feet.  Well, the part about him entering Jerusalem didn't actually happen.  In Luke 19, we find Jesus telling his disciples to acquire a donkey and colt from the village of Bethphage, outside of Jerusalem.  When the people greet him as he rides, he is near Bethphage, or on a small country road around there.  Then, he approaches Jerusalem and weeps over it from afar.  THEN, he enters Jerusalem and goes directly to the temple, where he proceeds to clean house.  The "triumphal entry" was actually quite humble, and was more of an approach than an entry into Jerusalem.

P.S. - You might hear on Easter morning that the same people who cried "Hosanna!" the Sunday before Passover were crying "Crucify him!" before the end of the week.   It's a common sermon example of how human hearts can be fickle (which is true!).  But, because these two events happened in different places, it's very unlikely that there were any people (outside of Jesus and the disciples traveling with him) who were in both places at all, much less likely that the same people changed their minds on something so crucial, so quickly.

What can we learn from realizing that we've had stories wrong all our lives, stories which we thought we had all right?  I know what I have learned - that I can always stand to give my Bible another reading, another careful, focused, and close reading.  As we prepare for Easter, the highest Christian holiday of all, we could use a little bit less of our own concoctions, and a little bit more of what the Bible actually feeds us.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What to Read for Holy Week

This year, for Lent, I've been taking the advice of one of our other TTC writers and, instead of giving something up, I've added devotional readings. Like Renea, I've added children's readings from the charming and talented Sally Lloyd-Jones. I've been adding a chapter a day throughout Lent from her Jesus Storybook Bible to my morning routine.

If you're looking for something to do to remember Holy Week this week and if you love beautiful, simple storytelling, or if you have children and would like to find something the whole family can participate in, readings from this book are a great idea. If you started today and wanted one reading through Good Friday, you would start with the story of the prodigal son and end with the crucifixion. Then, you could take a break on Saturday and pick up the readings on Easter morning with the story of Christ's resurrection. A word of warning to purists: this book is more storybook than Bible, but that's why I love it so much. Lloyd-Jones's whimsical writing brings back my childhood delight and wonder at the Big Story of Christianity and helps me to see my faith from new perspectives and from old perspectives I thought I had lost. And if you're looking for a Christianity 101 primer, this isn't a bad place to begin, both for children and grown-ups.

Happy Holy Week.