Archive for January, 2011

// sunday music: the decemberists

Stirring stuff from the Decemberists this week, whose new album The King is Dead came out a few weeks back. If it sounds to you a little bit like mid-90s R.E.M, don’t be surprised – it’s got R.E.M’s guitarist Peter Buck playing on it.

First pick is opening track Don’t Carry it All, with harmonica pieces sounding convincingly Springsteen and managing to convey youthful romanticism, wistful longing and anthemic campfire sing-a-longs all at the same time. It’s superb. It’s not on Grooveshark yet so listen to it on Youtube here:

From the classic album The Crane Wife, pick number two is Sons and Daughters, and yes, I think that’s an accordion in the background. It sounds a lot like a sea shanty, covered by Death Cab for Cutie. Grooveshark it here and listen to it on Youtube here:

And this, from Picaresque, deserves a mention purely for the magnificent effort put into the video. The song is The Mariner’s Revenge Song. Grooveshark it here or watch the video below and let yourself be carried to a different world:

* * *

So ends a sunday music filled with rakes, giant whales and amateur theatre. I hope it made you happy.

I’ll see you on Friday!


// saturday round-up (29/01)

Sorry about the lack of the Saturday round-up last week – things got really crazy and there just wasn’t space in my timetable to fit it in. Anyway, hopefully this week’s selection should make up for it, with a whole lot of controversy from a whole lot of sources:

* * *

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK: Russell D. Moore: “Is facebook (and your church) making you sad?” – A fascinating article linked to by Tim Challies, coming at the question of whether social media is making us depressed from a different (and welcome) angle. The article itself is here and I like Russell Moore’s call to integrity, to not wearing a shiny, happy mask at church even if you feel constrained to do so online…

// what happens when you get what you want? – Controversial philosopher Peter Rollins has started blogging regularly again over the past few weeks, and his reflections on desire, the topic of his next book, are thought-provoking reading. Most of what he’s written over the past couple of weeks is worth looking at, but this article in particular tied into a lot of the themes that I liked in his book How (not) to Speak of God. Check it out here – it even has a clip from Family Guy in it.

// for a creator, there’s no benefit to romantic preoccupations – Don Miller also started writing more regularly on his blog again this week, reflecting on the nature of the creative mind and what it means to be created in this way. Two articles that are well worth looking at – the first is here and the second, entitled “the creator must believe he has authority to create”, is here. If you’re a long-term Don Miller fan, it should get you excited about the prospect of a new book in the works…

// the Osteen moment – This week Piers Morgan repeatedly pressed Joel Osteen (the much-debated pastor who seems to preach an updated prosperity gospel, complete with sharp suit and shiny white teeth) about his beliefs on homosexuality, something that Osteen has been notably elusive about in the past. Remarkably, Osteen gave him a straight answer (no pun intended), and the debate has been raging across the internet for the past week or so. I don’t love the tone of Al Mohler‘s article, but I do think he makes some good points on this. Check it out here.

Incidentally, if you want to follow up on this issue further, Jesus Needs New PR has had an absolutely fascinating thread going this week, starting here and with two updates here and here, with MPT getting really (justifiably?) angry about an edited video of Sean McDowell that was sent out by a particular youth organisation this week and that came across as hateful, hurtful and ignorant. MPT is pretty vocal about this debate, and I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions, but he is right to point out the language used by the Christians in all of this is, for the most part, just plain damaging.

A few people, including Matt at the Church of No People have talked lately about how the issue of how the church handles homosexuality is going to become massive in the next few years. For my part, I think they’re right, and these debates (as well as what’s currently going on in Uganda) are arguably just the first of many to come – so the church really needs to develop a better vocabulary on these things, and fast.

// not finishing what we started – A brilliant, brilliant post by Jon Acuff. Personal and heartfelt, it’s essential reading.

// Jesus hates Obama – This is from last week, but fortunately Fox outlawed it being shown during the Superbowl. That said, you have to laugh:

// Michael Scott vs David Brent – When I saw this clip this week, I nearly fell off my chair. My brain just couldn’t accept it.

// the Saturday Sessions – Dermot O’Leary Presents the Saturday Sessions is £5 on Amazon MP3 until Thursday. It’s here, and if you love acoustic, stripped-back covers of pop songs that were once upbeat, then you can’t really go wrong!

* * *

And that’s it for this week’s saturday round-up. As ever, I’d love to hear your comments. Some controversial stuff today.

See you tomorrow for sunday music!

// morality, naivety and cultural sensitivity

There’s a fair amount of malicious glee knocking around certain corners of the internet over the failure of MTV’s American import of the show Skins, an adaptation of the UK concept that is currently shedding sponsors owing to a fear that its depiction of teenage life may stray into a technical definition of “child pornography” (by convincingly depicting under-18s in sexual contexts). A range of right-wing Christian commentators in particular have seen this as a vindication of their views on the need for morality on television and denounced MTV for wanting ratings and using sex as a way to get them.

However, in this particular case, that’s an argument that doesn’t seem especially far-sighted. Partly because it apparently hasn’t made any difference to MTV’s policy at all, but also rather more pertinently given that the UK version, which sought to give a picture of the reality of teenage life, ultimately came to the conclusion that being a teenager was an altogether more bleak and difficult period than normally concluded – albeit a period that was admittedly shot through with splashes of vibrant colour from time to time.

The terms of the debate are frustrating, really, though, because all these sort of labels tend to do is sensationalise the discussion and most likely put Christians off watching the programme and forming their own conclusions about what culture is saying to their teenagers. I should clarify that I haven’t actually seen MTV’s Skins in this case, but I’m a big fan of the UK original, which started its fifth season on E4 last night with a storyline about teenage bullying, sexuality, popularity and social outcasts, and which incurred similar criticism when it first aired. In fact, there are elements of it that I would even go so far as to applaud.

I think its depiction of the emptiness of teen hedonism, the bleak and unsatisfying place that pornography and drugs bring people to, is refreshingly honest; I think that the questions it raises about the meaning of life, especially in the face of the tragic and unexpected death of one character, are profoundly relevant. Actually, I happen to think that it is a show that asks the right questions, even if it doesn’t always provide satisfying answers to them.

So what worries me a little about those Americans laughing about the demise of the US Skins is the lack of evangelistic or cultural sensitivity that it shows. It’s fine to sit back, talking about how you have all the right answers, but when something is asking questions about what the right answers are or how you get to them and you just shoot them down, what you’re effectively saying is that if people want to come to know Christ, they have to do it your way.

I’m not saying that the message is any different at the core, because it’s not, emphatically not, but the way in which people come to know Jesus Christ is unique and also often kind of strange.

See, I know of – or have heard of – people who have met Christ in visions whilst worshipping in mosques, who have encountered Christ while under the influence of drugs, who have been leading large groups of Christian leaders and all the time feeling like a great con-man, only to have individuals come up to them and tell them the exact details of their situation. Some who became Christians in late adulthood, some who became Christians at the age of six and stuck it out ever since, some who made a commitment in youth and then fell away only to come back, set on fire by something they only partially understand.

There are some profoundly strange stories out there, and not just from people that you’d describe as flaky or theologically-liberal, either. In all honesty, they’re the sort of stories that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Skins. Stories of people questioning, people broken, people finding grace or purpose or truth in the midst of chaotic lives.

I’ve been following a year-long Bible reading plan this year, and the past few weeks it’s had me reading about King David. There’s one verse at David’s calling by Samuel that says, “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and it’s one that has always stuck out at me. Never so much as here. Because lately it’s been making me wonder if one of the ways that we can become better evangelists, better communicators and more wise individuals, even, is to ask God for that kind of wisdom – to see beneath the appearance to the heart of things, and to ascertain what is really going on here.

You see, from where I’m sitting, Skins doesn’t look like that much of a dangerous proposition. What do you expect, that teenagers are going to get ideas to have sex and take drugs from a show that talks about how profoundly dissatisfying sex and drugs are? Come on, give them some credit.

I’m a huge fan of Dexter, too, another controversial show (one network went so far as even to label it “amoral”) that depicts a serial killer who is by day a forensic pathologist. He has a series of masks and a carefully constructed false life that includes a wife and family, along with what he calls a ‘dark passenger’ – the hidden darkness inside of him, which nobody sees or knows. Again, it’s a show that asks all those questions that need to be asked – that looks into universal experiences and faces them head-on.

These are the spaces for evangelistic conversations, the places where people are already asking the questions.

In contrast, look at something like The Joy of Teen Sex instead, also a Channel 4 programme, and one which has incurred considerably less flak than Skins has taken because of its frankness to deal with the practical mechanics of sexuality and yet contains an underlying ethos that takes little or no consideration of the ethical, moral or social consequences of teenage sexuality. That’s a whole other proposition, for sure. That’s a show that already knows exactly what it believes.

So here’s a question for you: to all those Christians out there who shout that there is more to sex than just a physical act, why are you still shouting about mechanics of sex on TV rather than looking at the heart of these things? Do you see why there’s a problem here?

Engaging with culture is always going to be a balancing act between engagement and withdrawal, and we’re unlikely to ever reach a stable position – and nor should we. But let’s not become naive or arrogant when it comes to looking at cultural output, standing back at denouncing anyone who hasn’t quite got to where we are yet. Much healthier to look instead at the heart, to investigate the reason why people are looking to these things and what questions underpin them and then go from there.

Because that ought to keep us from becoming one of those guys sitting in the corner, well-fed and lacking nothing, laughing at the poor, hopeless imbeciles on the outside, don’t you think?

// sunday music: the national

Three picks today from misery-rock champions The National, who have been making quiet, melancholic waves in the indie scene for the past few years and whose latest album, “High Violet” featured on the “best of 2010” list of almost everyone who writes about these things. Suffused with melancholy and yet also oddly uplifting, there’s echoes of the Smiths and Arcade Fire in there too.

Pick number one is first single from that album, Bloodbuzz Ohio – on grooveshark here and Youtube below. Great refrain:

Pick number two, Fake Empire, is from The National’s last album, “Boxer”, and reportedly featured in Barack Obama’s campaign commercials. It probably belongs on an apple ad, albeit a sad one. Grooveshark it here and watch a brilliant, unofficial video here:

And finally, another pick from “High Violet”, this time in the form of the absolutely devastating Sorrow. The gentle piano in the background of the refrain, “I don’t want to get over you”, is heart-breaking. Grooveshark it here and watch it here:

Bruce Springsteen has them on his ipod, apparently, and one review I read suggested that “High Violet” was like the anti-“Born to Run”. Listening to the instrumentation and song structure, I can see it, but maybe you disagree.

* * *

And that’s all for this week’s sunday music!

Apologies for the lack of the saturday round-up this week – things got hectic and so it got squeezed.

I might try and post it on Monday instead, but if not I’ll see you on Friday.

// stasis and perpetual motion

An interesting question from Krish Kandiah this week: does reading the Bible cause us to be more active in our faith, or does being active in our faith inspire us to read the Bible? Is it a question that you can ever get to the bottom of?

The puzzle, he says, derives from an Evangelical Alliance survey, which shows that:

“The more time an evangelical Christian spends reading the Bible each week, the more active they are in other areas of their faith. They are more likely to volunteer, to give money, to pray frequently and talk about their faith.”

You can read the article over at Krish’s blog, and I’d advise you to do so – it’s expanded upon in more depth there.

The idea of being in that kind of perpetual motion is one that’s always appealed to me on a conceptual level – being in “a perpetual cycle of appetite and action, feeding yourself and feeding others”.

One of my favourite illustrations for this actually comes from a tutor who taught me for my undergraduate degree. We spoke in one tutorial about stasis, and he told me that our idea of stasis, as it has been commonly understood, is born out of a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s not the point of peace reached because of a lack of stress – it is a kind of peace born precisely because of it.

Stasis, he said, is the point at which two opposing and equal forces meet – the point of stillness born out of tension in the middle. When we talk about peace, he suggested, we are not talking about passivity or uninterrupted comfort – we are talking about activity, that active peace that exists in the midst of an irreconcilable tension.

I wonder if that’s part of what Paul meant when he talked about “the peace of God, which passes all understanding”, too. The madness of continually laying yourself down and continually taking up God – whether that’s in thought, word or deed – sounds nonsensical from the outside, until you live it at least.

You don’t need me to tell you about the scholars who have asserted that Christian faith (or indeed any faith, perhaps) is a retreat into ignorance. But I don’t think it is – at least, it’s not a retreat into the quiet life. It is a choice to live in a place of active peace; laying down what you feel and picking up what God says to be true; laying down selfish ambition and picking up a better way; and, at times, laying down comprehension and picking up trust.

That is a continual decision, and it is arguably one that will never stop. And after all, isn’t that what Christianity should be about? “The glory of God [in] man fully alive”, as Iranaeus once put it?

Continually being filled in order to give, continually giving in order to be filled, and fully alive in whatever situations we are thrown into – through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise, sorrowful and yet always rejoicing, poor but making many rich – and, in short, having nothing but possessing everything?

// sunday music: top worship albums of the past decade (part 2)

Okay, here’s the second part of the top worship albums of the past decade (you can find the first part here). Same principles apply as last time – i’m going in mostly alphabetical order, i’ve tried not to repeat too many artists, and if i’ve missed anyone, let me know!

* * *

Fling Wide – Misty Edwards: It’s a hard call choosing between this and Misty Edwards’ excellent Relentless (featuring what is probably her biggest song to date, “You Won’t Relent”), but Fling Wide is a great album. Misty Edwards’ passion is equalled by almost nobody, and she’s certainly pushed the boundaries of worship over the past few years, producing songs that are often alienating or bizarre, in contrast to the prevailing trends in worship.

Here’s Arms Wide Open, one of the best songs off Fling Wide. If you like it, check out “Soul Cry” and “Rend”, as well as “I will waste my life”, probably my favourite Misty Edwards song:

Singalong – Phil Wickham: It’s odd that Phil Wickham’s best album is the one that he gave away for free, but the energy and raw passion that he brings to this live concert makes it one of the best worship experiences of the past decade. If you were ever annoyed by the faux-love song lines that open “Beautiful” (“the colours of the morning are inside Your eyes”? Seriously?) then hopefully you’ll be converted back to Phil Wickham’s awesome talent by “True Love”, here. Sadly, Sony won’t let me embed it.

For the record, by the way, I love “Beautiful”. Don’t send me hate mail.

The Beautiful Letdown – Switchfoot: The very first post that I ever wrote on this blog was about Switchfoot, and Jon Foreman’s music has a very special place in my heart. Millions bought The Beautiful Letdown, and “Dare You to Move” was featured on One Tree Hill whilst “Meant to Live” was the official song of Spiderman 2, but for all of that, there’s a flair and an honesty to the album that’s pretty rare in mainstream worship.

“On Fire”, with its lines “when everything inside me | Looks like everything I hate | You are the hope I have for change | You are the only chance I’ll take | And I’m on fire when You’re near me…” is a contender for best song off the album, although it’s competing with the magnificent “Twenty-Four” for that accolade:

Of course, though, being another Sony-owned song, it won’t embed and so you’ll have to click here to watch it.

Happy Day – Tim Hughes: Controversially, I’ve chosen not to include Holding Nothing Back on this list, because in spite of the quality of the songwriting, I don’t actually think it’s an album that can withstand long-term listening. That said, live it is an incredible experience, and a recent live album captured that perfectly.

I’ve chosen “Here I am to Worship” from this album as, even in spite of the fact that it’s been basically played to death, this duet with Delirious?’s Martin Smith actually succeeds in re-invigorating it again, and it’s worth listening to for that alone. Other highlights include “Give Us Your Courage”, “God of Justice”, “Everything” and an amazing version of “When I Survey”, though, which is arguably even better than Bluetree’s:

All My Devotion – Kristene Mueller: Jesus Culture collaborator Kristene Mueller doesn’t subscribe to the same musical stylings as her contemporaries, preferring a thoughtful acoustic-folk instead – but her lyrics are tight and thought-provoking, and her melodies are really strong. In All My Devotion she crafted an appealing package that ended up being one of the worship highlights of the past few years, with almost every track being outstanding.

Check out “Redemption” here, with a surprisingly good video too, and if you like this be sure to look up “Praise the Lord”, “St Francis” and “Homeward Bound” as well:

Revolution – YFriday: I suspect many people will disagree with me that Newcastle rock band YFriday deserve to be on this list, but they are worthy of a place in the top worship albums of the past decade, having built up a whole series of tightly-crafted Christian pop tunes. They were the ones behind “Everlasting God”, co-written with Brenton Brown, and “Revolution”, their third album, is genius.

If you don’t believe me, listen to “Start of the Summer” here and then check out their “Best Of” album on Spotify here, being sure to pay particular attention to “Saved the Day”, “Revolution”, “Holy Holy Holy”, and “At the Cross”, and avoiding the moment on “Universal” where they rip Feeder’s “Seven Days in the Sun” off so shamelessly that they could be sued for it:

Organic Family Hymnal – REND Collective Experiment: A popular choice, the REND Collective Experiment have steadily been gaining momentum for the past couple of years, thanks in part to their creative videos and that iphone worship video that was watched by virtually everyone (and which North Point Baptist Church subsequently nicked). Organic Family Hymnal is quirky, creative and unlike much else out there, thanks in large part to the collective element, as well as the fact that they actually listen to music outside of the Christian sub-culture – or so i’m told.

The singles were great, but the high point for me is a beautiful reworking of Wesley’s “Love Divine” (which is on Grooveshark here). However, it’s not on Youtube, so you’ll have to make do with the great video from “You Bled” instead:

Which you can find here (of course, it won’t embed).

Blessed Be Your Name – Matt Redman: A little bit of a cheat, given that this is effectively a “greatest hits” album, but it’s all live, and nobody benefits from being in a live worship setting as much as Matt Redman (or maybe Bruce Springsteen). Recorded live, and spanning most of Matt Redman’s career, there’s a freshness to these arrangements that makes it one of the best worship albums I’ve ever heard. It’s one I come back to again and again.

Here’s “I will offer up my life”:

Awakening – Passion: Another Passion album, too, this time from the 2010 conference. Great live versions of a number of well known songs from the past year – including “You Alone Can Rescue” by Matt Redman and David Crowder’s version of “How He Loves” – but also additional tracks such as Chris Tomlin’s “Our God” and “Awakening”, or my particular favourite, Crowder’s “Like a Lion”.

Which you can listen to here:

Honourable mentions: There are others, of course, that have not been mentioned on this list. Delirious? have a great album called “Farewell Show” which is worth looking into. Lecrae‘s album “Rebel” is an amazing Christian rap album. And Brenton Brown should really feature on this list, but my church has overplayed his songs and so doesn’t…

Martyn Layzell’s “Turn My Face” is great, thoughtful music. thebandwithnoname and LZ7 deserve a mention. Hillsong‘s “This is Our God” and the “I Heart Generation” are good, too, and worth listening to. Casting Crowns’ album “Lifesong” in particular is one that deserves a wider shout-out, being amazing, prophetic songwriting, but time is short. Gungor did a great job covering Israel Houghton (who is also worth a look) on “Beautiful Things”. And Bethel Church‘s “Here is Love” is another superb album in the Jesus Culture mode.

* * *

However, that’s it for the top worship albums of the past decade! I’ll make a grooveshark playlist of these and post it later in the week so you can listen to a selection. Until then, let me know what I’ve missed and I’ll see you on Friday!

// saturday round-up (14/01)

Loads of great stuff out there this week from a whole range of sources, but don’t let that put you off – take what you find helpful and discard the rest…

* * *

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK: Reaching a Missing Generation – Krish Kandiah: A great article over at Krish Kandiah’s blog today about reaching 20-30s and pursuing lasting discipleship. This is something that a number of people have been talking about lately, and it’s true that with the pressures of life in our 20s, many people simply lose the passionate or creative expressions of faith they picked up in youth or as students. I don’t think this is inevitable, but there are a lot of defeated-looking 30-year olds out there, even in the church, and I don’t want to be one of them…

// psalm 90: another excellent meditation from the 24-7 Prayer community, this week taking Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 90 in the Message and reflecting on it. I’d encourage you to take the two and a half minutes it takes to watch it. Breathe, be still and check it out here:

If you want to link to it to use elsewhere, you can copy and paste the link from here.

// new look ASBO Jesus: Jon Birch’s ASBO Jesus cartoons have had a facelift over at his site. I read the whole of the archives over the Christmas break and I’d recommend it – some really thought-provoking critiques and commentaries on church policy, and although some of it is challenging or quite close to the edge, it’ll definitely make you think. This made me laugh over there this week, too.

// what God are you teaching your teenagers?: A timely reminder from youthministry360 that we proclaim the God we know, and a few tips on how to keep a true perspective on God. You can read it here.

// thinking every Christian other than you has it together: Stuff Christians Like’s Jon Acuff is currently writing a book about doubt, which may end up being like an entire book of his “Serious Wednesday” posts. If so, I’ll buy it instantly, as this week’s post was just brilliant. Read it here.

// Calvin and Hobbes search engine: If you ever need a talk illustration or reflection on a topic, there is arguably no better place to go than to Calvin and Hobbes. And now you can search Bill Watts’ cartoons online here! The search engine is very precise, not accepting different forms of a word (ie. “run” vs “ran”) so if you don’t get many results, play around with it until you do.

// Signs of Life: Another link with 24-7 Prayer – their friends at Edge Kingsland in New Zealand this week gave away a 7-track worship EP called “Signs of Life”, free of charge, here. I’ve been playing it as I write this, and it’s great – dreamy, passionate and even pretty interesting musically, with shades of Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky in places. I’d highly recommend downloading it.

// the gentle good: Former chief rock critic at the Times Pete Paphides this week plugged the gentle good via his Twitter feed, and they make what he calls “achingly lovely folk-baroque from Wales”. If that’s your thing (and whose isn’t it?) then you can listen to them here. Worth a look.

// Springpad: I’ve extolled the virtues of Evernote over the past year, but Springpad takes the same principles (ie. making documents saved on your home computer available wherever else you go via. an online account) and makes them slicker, more intuitive and more flexible. The Ipod/Iphone app is worth having too, as it’s free of charge and very well put together. If you’ve not discovered Springpad yet, you can do so here.

// hating on Harry Potter, giving Gandalf a free pass: one of Jon Acuff’s most popular posts this year, but it’s a fair point that he makes – after all, Gandalf is a wizard too. I mean, come on, folks. Is this an age thing?

// this guy’s a real winner: I can’t tell if this guy is joking or not. Part of me hopes so. Still, it made me laugh:

Courtesy, of course, of Jesus Needs New PR.

// when you don’t feel like praying: And finally, another great prayer from Pastor Scotty Smith, courtesy of Tim Challies. I love Pastor Scotty Smith’s honesty and frankness in his prayers, and this is no exception.

* * *

And that’s it for the saturday round-up this week!

I’ll see you tomorrow for sunday music, and the conclusion part of the top worship albums of the past decade.

See you there, hopefully.