Tag Archives: music

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

*****
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Good reads (and a listen) from late August

I’ve been scrambling to survive a magazine deadline and the first week of class, but I always save at least a few minutes to skim social media or rest with a book.

A few I recommend for your attention:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Amazon link)
Visit your favorite local bookstore, grab a cuppa from the cafe, and read the first chapter.  Coates (who is famous for his long narrative and personal pieces about Black life in America for major media) penned letters to his teenaged son, explaining his experience of growing up black in Baltimore. The account is gritty and angry, reminiscent of Richard Wright. Though nearly a century has passed since Wright and others raised their voices against the discrimination and racism of American life, Coates seethes with the same resentment.

Polls show that white Americans downplay the idea that racism affects justice or social mobility in our country. Coates’s account is one voice among millions so perhaps some may dismiss him as an outlier. But you need to encounter his biography and his anger and his hope and his despair honestly and for yourself.

*****
“I’m from New Orleans, but I didn’t understand why we needed to save it” (Washington Post)

intelligence is not wisdom. My belated New Orleans education forced me to swallow an impossible, and yet an inevitable, fact: the spiritual, the musical, the mystical side of human relations. Sometimes what is important cannot be seen, only felt.

Why is it so hard to value joy over economics? We struggle yet. But New Orleans seems to “get it.” Perhaps flirting with destruction is the only way to enjoy life.

*****
A tough read about what no white Republican really wants to talk about. So I’m going to post it here in hopes that you’ll have the courage to read it:

“What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”

Source: How the GOP became the “White Man’s Party” – Salon.com

*****
I’m not sure I’d agree with Kennedy on every point here, but his eulogy for Robert Frost provokes great questions about art and its power to affect society through a radical telling of truth.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

Source: JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time | Brain Pickings

*****
One of the best new songs I’ve run into. I absolutely love this track from The Fire Tonight’s new album.

*****

Enjoy. I’m already collecting more. 🙂

A few good reads for your weekend

I’ve run across so many excellent short pieces of writing on the Internet recently that I am going to serve up a list of Posts Worth Your Time this weekend.  None of these are particularly long, so grab them as mental snacks when you have time:

My friend John Ellis’s passionate review of Bill Mallonee’s latest album convinced me that I need to give it a listen today, and if I like it, to buy it. #becausemusic  And that’s a pretty impressive album review considering I don’t even particularly follow that genre. I appreciate people with excellent music taste who write fervently about good music.
“An Unfortunate Review” | No Depression

I saw firsthand the power of improv games in my classroom and among my students to grow their confidence, develop rapid-thinking techniques, and build deeper relationships and community. Guess what, this is great for adults too!
How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond | MindShift | KQED News

Not really an article, but I just heard that there will be a live (and streamed) performance of the entire Iliad in Britain this summer. Cool!
Almeida Greeks | Homer’s Iliad to become an epic online performance – BBC News

I never realized Buzzfeed did actual journalism until this spring, when I looked past all the listicle and found genuinely good reporting. This short piece about the way TLC exploits Fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicals for profit as reality TV is both sad and angering. I’m sad that Christians are so easily duped by the likes of TLC, and angry that Christians are defending the Duggars instead of crying out for much needed reforms in our circles. Sarah Jones contributes a good analysis:
How TLC’s Fundamentalism-As-Kitsch Hurts Women | Buzzfeed

Also in the land of Fundamentalism is another good read from Samantha Fields on Defeating the Dragons about how something as simple as grammar rules can be twisted into an issue of righteousness and conscience. Not all grammar nazis think prescriptive grammar is next to godliness, but I absolutely heard this line of thinking when I was in college.
I was a grammar nazi, and I was wrong | Defeating the Dragons

One of the more surprising Caitlyn Jenner pieces to emerge from the Internet was this one, a personal account from a pastor who says Jenner & the Kardashians helped plant a church in their area. Yeah, I had to read that twice too….  “Caitlyn knows who Jesus is, and Jesus knows her by name. Whether that sits comfortably on a timeline or blog comment, I know firsthand that Caitlyn has heard the good news.”
Sanctuary — I Went to Church with Bruce Jenner and Here’s What Caitlyn taught me about Jesus”

John also posted an article this week by a venerable food historian offering an interesting critique of the Slow Food movement. Is it possible for “industrial” or “processed” not to mean “evil” and “bad food”? She says, Yes. And it’s a really interesting read:

Choice of places to shop for food, choices of ingredients and dishes, choice of restaurants are all clearly ways to express class in the US. The snobbery that goes along with the choices can be irritating. And the use of phrases such as “how can we get them to eat better” set my teeth on edge.
via How Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Slow Food Theorists Got It All Wrong | Washingtonian.

And here:  Make some amazing lemon bars this weekend:
Lemon Bars With Olive Oil and Sea Salt Recipe – NYT Cooking.

A beautiful explanation of what daily, ordinary, powerful Love is like, as pictured in a relationship between a husband and his depressed wife:
Crawling Back From the Ledge – NYTimes.com

OK. Enough for now. Tune in again soon for more. 🙂

For St Patrick’s Day

 

Lorica
Written by St. Patrick in 377 A.D.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

St. Patrick (ca. 377)

 

▶ The Cambridge Singers – A Prayer of Saint Patrick – Conducted by John Rutter – YouTube.

Late August Notes

Hey folks!  I offer here an overview of some of the cool media I’ve been reading/watching/playing/eating (you can’t eat media, but I need to give a shout-out to some great August food) this month.

I’ll be honest,  it’s been really busy at work and things aren’t going to let up until later this fall.  I’ll write more when I can match up brain cells to blocks of time.  Till then….

COOL TUNES
Snarky Puppies have changed my life. Seriously. If you like music at all you owe it to yourself to watch this and revel in the fusion of jazz and horns and awesomeness. Just hit play and enjoy the background tunes for the rest of the post…. don’t turn it off before you hear 1) the fun guitar tune and 2) the awesome keyboard riffs.

Dose horns, doe!

KICKSTARTER FINDS
I find Kickstarter to be pretty amazing. Yes, you can get taken for a ride if developers suck. But that’s not happened to me (yet) and I’ve really enjoyed everything I chose to support on the kickstarted platform, from an indestructible wallet to hold all my random loyalty cards to games to music projects and even a few friends’ projects. (Like David Benedict’s outstanding album.)

At the moment, I’m most excited about a pinhole camera kit that you assemble yourself: VIDDY   It’s an analog way to do your Instagram. 😉 There’s still time to get on this campaign if you find this fascinating, as I do.

Also, The Printshop has opened up in Greenville, SC, offering more space for local artists and printmakers to do their thing. Cool.

And emberlight – a quick way to connect normal lightbulbs to your phone for easily dimmable lighting. Also still open for backers.

ENTERTAINING GAMES (IRL)
Jesse has arrived and brought his massive collection of board games with him. How massive? Massive. The pile currently threatens to overwhelm the small corner of our library where I thought we could shelve them.

Since last week, I’ve been introduced to half a dozen board & card games I’d never even heard of, with several dozen more to go.  We could host our own board games tournament here at the house.  Maybe that should be a fall party…..

I have enough material here to do a separate post reviewing the games we’ve played (and what skills they teach), so hit the post before this one to see my reviews of

Compounded
Mars Needs Mechanics
Arctic Scavengers
Space Realms
Sushi Go!
Archipelago

ENTERTAINING GAMES (VIDEO)
Finished playing the classic game Shadowrun (in the re-issued version from Steam, called Shadowrun Returns).  Good cyberpunk atmosphere & storyline, interesting story.  Built on the essential D&D game mechanic of turn-based combat (really, this is very close to Baldur’s Gate or other D&D style games).

Also enjoying Sanctum 2, which combines tower-defense play with FPS aspects.  You play as one of 5 classes (i.e.: different kinds of guns, different styles of play) and lay down gun towers or barricades on each of the game’s levels.  Wave after wave of enemies attack, but instead of just sitting back and watching helplessly, you get down in  the trenches with each wave to beat back the alien hordes. It’s a nice blend.

FUNNY THINGS I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN ABOUT SOONER
How did I live this long before discovering the online video series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? (HAWP)  It’s random and intelligent (sometimes).

Language warning.
Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? MINECRAFT

AMAZING FOOD
I’ve told everyone I can find to make this carnitas recipe. Seriously. Will. Change. Your. Life.

Buns In My Oven: Authentic Texas Carnitas

I'm only sorry that the Internet can't provide a sense of smell along with this tantalizing photo of my carnitas.
I’m only sorry that the Internet can’t provide a sense of smell along with this tantalizing photo of my carnitas. Just add corn tortillas, a little sour cream, some shredded crunchy cabbage, and cheese.  Eat. Repeat.  Stop before you get sick.


INTERESTING STAGE PERFORMANCE

Last evening, we had the privilege of seeing The Restoration’s local-color album Constance brought to life via a stage performance of the album at the Trustus Theatre in Columbia.

Constance is one of my favorite albums musically. Its story is quite dark, offering a brutally honest look at the racist history of Lexington, South Carolina.  I’ve written about it before – here and here.

Check out the band’s videos & album coverage to hear samples, or read the story.

Translating a musical album to a stage production takes knack. I liked seeing the story more fully explained, but the musician part of me struggled to let go of how much I loved the album release show, where Daniel Machado (the band’s lead singer) voiced each of the characters through the words of the songs.  There’s a subtlety to that storytelling that I liked…. but I’m glad they’re pursuing a stage version of Constance, and glad to have seen this first step.

READING ANYTHING GOOD?
I am working my way through a book about using science fiction as a teaching tool. It’s a collection of essays, so the writing quality is uneven (to be expected), but the book sparks a lot of good ideas about how to evaluate sci-fi from literary perspectives, and how sci-fi can be used to generate cross-displinary integration between science and other fields (or literature and science).

Practicing Science Fiction

~~~~~~~

I’ll try to swing by the blog and write as I have time over the coming weeks.  My creative juices are being absorbed by work much of the time – developing a museum exhibit, planning a major event, designing stuff, managing projects.  It’s all good but it drains my tank by the time I get home, and all I want to do is read or veg or play a game or watch something.

Leave me a comment if you’d like — I’d love to know what you’re reading / watching / playing / doing / eating. 

A dark tale with Southern roots

This will seem like a very strange followup to yesterday’s post about Christianity changing its response to abuse, but hold on till the end and I think you’ll see the connection.

South Carolina has a surprisingly robust music scene, especially in Columbia and Charleston. (The Upstate really needs to catch up. …. and develop more of a “music scene” to support a couple more good venues for good old-fashioned rock. But that’s an issue for another day.)

One of my favorite South Carolina bands is The Restoration, fronted by Daniel Machado and based in Columbia.

The hubby and I first met Daniel when he opened for some friends of ours at the local Irish pub, and then got a flat tire in the parking lot which not a one of us — even the big burly guys — could manage to break free from the rusted lug nuts. So Daniel packed himself off to our friends’ house for the night, which turned into about a 3-day saga. So I feel a bond with Daniel, one somehow linked to great music, a banjo, South Carolina, and the crappy vehicles that musicians always seem to drive because the Universe is unjust. (In MY universe, musicians would make enough to eat without worrying, and financial analysts would have to drive 17 year old Corollas with rusty fenders.)

We’ve followed Daniel ever since, making the switch with him from The Guitar Show (his first band) to The Restoration, his roots-music band that delves deep into the twisted history of the South.

An encounter with William Faulkner at a USC literature course set Daniel’s sights on Southern Gothic storytelling. He grew up steeped in the Southern civic Christianity that flavors everything down here — God is woven into South Carolina life, regardless of your personal belief.  Here, especially if you’re white, good people respect the Almighty and appreciate the Bible; bad people believe evolution, vote for Obama, and claim to be agnostic. I think the Republican to Democrat ratio here in SC is something like 8 to 1.  I’m not even sure why I bother to vote (because seriously, regardless of party affiliation, my vote does not matter).

The Restoration kicked things off with an incredible album called Constance. I’ve written about it before, when we attended the CD release show, and I highly recommend hitting the newspaper interviews that I’ve linked to in that post.

Constance tells the story of a biracial young man in the 1910s whose rage against the injustice of his life, both economic and racial, blazes into hatred against a particular man as the cause for that injustice.  Like any good Faulkner follower, Constance doesn’t end happy, just like the racial reality of many Southern towns. (The last lynching in South Carolina was in 1947.)

This depressing narrative captured Daniel’s soul, resulting in some pretty amazing art.

The Restoration followed with a sophomore album named Honor the Father. It’s a dark, twisted story of a cultish Bible believer in the 1950s who follows Old Testament law straight into the arms of domestic abuse, murder, and weirdness.  Cheery.

The album spawned a Kickstarter for an indie film – fitting for a story of the 1950s, not all Mayberry as they’re cracked up to be.  You really ought to listen to the album in whole, but definitely check out the film:

Honor the Father from Christopher Tevebaugh on Vimeo.

Diana Bright grasps for a means to escape her husband’s transformation from insecure youth to domineering husband in this musical short about the 1950’s South.

The Restoration released a quick EP back in December, I think, called New South Blues. It crackles with satire toward Christians who speak so often of Gospel but live so much like the broken world we inhabit.

To quote a verse from the title track:

Lo the Facebook lamentations 
About the “spoiling of the nation” 
And how the good ol’ days are gone. 
Oh? They never mention ol’ Jim Crow. 

“In the past, turned the page” 
Muslim witch hunt, Proposition 8 
This is the new South 

and later

In all fairness, the South has no monopoly 
On ignorance and bigotry 
You understand 
We just have the most trusted brand

Whenever I hear Constance or Honor the Father and especially New South Blues, it hurts my heart that so many people see Christians as racist, misogynist hypocrites.

I listen, so that I may remember. And be different.

 

Concert Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grace and Tony – @The Handlebar

Had the privilege of watching two great acts in the folk music scene on Wednesday night (March 5) at The Handlebar in Greenville.

First, I must note the unusual demographics:  Other than classical music concerts, which seem to draw none but retirees these days, my concert experiences usually put me in contact with people in their 20s and 30s.  But this show was at least 50% Boomers and older –and I was really surprised.

(Side note: When the retirement crowd forms a major part of your show audience, expect to see a LOT of people going back and forth to the bathroom. That’s what I learned.  Less drinking, more peeing. lol)

Grace & Tony, a husband & wife team, bring quirky humor into their guitar and mandolin music which they call “punkgrass.”  They sing about everything from lost love to pretending to be superheroes, and they do so with a lot of personality & character & fun.

I usually don’t expect to run into Katy Perry tunes at a concert like this, but Grace & Tony covered “Extraterrestrial” and they were all the way into the first chorus before I could name why my brain was recognizing the tune but I was completely confused about this song. ha! A cover!  A punkgrass cover of Katy Perry. It was great.   I’ll take all the punk grass covers they want to provide of radio hits.

Try “November” to get a feel for Grace & Tony’s tunes.

I must also add that one of the coolest things EVER happened to us at this show.  At one point, Grace mentioned that the most adorable 8 year old had gone to their show at the Kennedy Center in DC, and written them a review.  Well, we happen to know that 8 year old quite well. 🙂  She proclaims Grace & Tony to be her favorite band, and I can see why.  (This kid is gonna grow up with killer music taste.)

I was pulling out my iPhone to record anything that happened next (in case it was connected to Infinity) when Tony said, “Are the Rameys in the house?  Infinity wants us to give you a shout out!”

So … uh….. that was cool!

The Handlebar crowd was happy to enjoy Grace & Tony, and I think they picked up some fans that night. But truly this was a Carolina Chocolate Drops crowd – the roar was apparent when the foursome took the stage.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops

The CCD are an old-time string band from North Carolina.  They play American roots music — old tunes from the hills, from folk music, from the fabric of American life in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Picture amazing fiddling, fantastic rhythms, legit banjo or guitar, a meld of bluegrass and blues and Irish, all grounded by the rich tones of a cello being played like an upright bass.  And the lead singer’s voice is a knockout!  (So is she. Rhiannon is one pretty lady.)

I love this kind of music because you learn so much when listening at a show. Usually the players will give you the name of the tune they’re about to play and the mentor who taught it to them, or the player whose version is the most famous.  I love that this music is passed down person to person – you can’t just pick up American roots music from a book or formal music lessons. You go to where the masters live and work, and you play with them until the tune is part of you.  Then you make it your own, and the music carries on.

The CCD are passionate about bringing this musical heritage back to Americans — it serves as the foundation for our pop & rock music, but many of us don’t know the tunes or stories, and we don’t come together as a community around live music and dancing like we used to. (Our loss.)   Plus, much of the old American music is rooted in African music –  slaves were stripped of their culture, but they didn’t lose everything. And their fellow Americans were happy to borrow great musical ideas, even instruments (like the banjo) from African music and incorporate it into American folk music.  Rhiannon and her band are working to bring those stories back to mind.

As for the show — well, it was just fantastic.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are some of the finest musicians I’ve ever seen in person.  Rhiannon can light up a room with her voice — she can be sultry or soulful or playful or on fire, in turn. Hubby, who plays many instruments, took an occasional solo to play country blues, a rough and tumble guitar-based blues that crackles with energy.  And the whole foursome puts everything out when performing – drawing the crowd into the dance of the strings.

The CCDs played for nearly 90 minutes before wrapping up their set. But this Carolina crowd wasn’t going to let them go so easily. The deafening roar demanded two encores from the musicians.  And if you ever get to see the Chocolate Drops live, you’ll be hooked too.