Author Archives: Jerry Wilson

Oden Fong’s “Invisible Man” makes a welcome reappearance

By 1986, when Oden Fong released his second solo album Invisible Man, several changes has transformed the 1970s Orange County revival’s music movement of which he was such an intregal member, both as a member of Mustard Seed Faith and as a solo artist. Calvary Chapel Santa Ana had shut down Maranatha Music except for its über soft pop praise music releases, the Saturday night concerts hosted by the church were no more, and radio station KYMS, which had previously championed local artists, had switched to a mainstream label artists only format and would soon go away altogether. The support network was crumbling, and the future was decidedly uncertain.

Enter Invisible Man. Originally released on the Frontline label and now once again available through Fong’s Bandcamp page, regarding its creation he comments:

This album I recorded mostly at home with an 8 track recorder synced to a Linn 9000 drum/midi computer. Purely experimental, it is a notebook of thoughts and ideas I had at the time. All guitar parts were played though a tiny Rockman preamp. The drums, keyboards and bass were all programmed with midi. The only tracks recorded onto tape were the vocals, guitars and saxophone. This is why the album sounds more like a demo than a studio album.

Fong’s disclaimer notwithstanding, it is this somewhat unfinished element that gives Invisible Man a great deal of its musical charm. The album is unmistakably 80s flavored with its synthesizer riffs and drum machine, yet the sparse sound and rough edges provided by not being a polished product rescue the album from being a machine music outing typical of the time period (and today, for that matter). That, and Fong’s songwriting skill. His gift for hooks and melody shines throughout.

Lyrically, Invisible Man is aimed more at discipling believers than evangelistic outreach. There is a fair amount of bite in tunes such as “Joker In An Age Of Fools” and “Faith:Action” which find Fong admonishing fellow Christians to practice that about which they have heard preached. The album is far more Keith Green than kid gloves; challenging and at times confrontational.

Invisible Man tends to be the most overlooked item in Fong’s catalog. It ought not to be. No, it is not the lofty masterpiece that is Come For The Children, nor is it the Mustard Seed Faith melodic roots evangelism bringing back memories of the days when it all shone with the bright flame of newfound faith. Nevertheless, Invisible Man is a fine album more than deserving a listen, and its being available again is a blessing.

Is Mustard Seed Faith the quintessential Christian rock band?

When asked to name the quintessential Christian rock band, most fans whose memories stretch back farther than Switchfoot will name either Petra, which made arena-style praise rock acceptable to the masses, or U2 for being the reluctant father of 99.44% of all worship bands. Certainly a strong case can be made for either. That said, another band seldom if ever brought into the conversation warrants consideration. Namely, Mustard Seed Faith.

Mustard Seed Faith released only one album during its active years, that being 1975’s Sail On Sailor. With its beautifully creative cover, painted by the late avant-pop artist Rick Griffin after his becoming a Christian in 1970 during the Jesus People movement, and its classic pop/rock title track that epoxied itself onto turntables in coffee houses and youth group meetings across the land, Sail On Sailor was a living emblematic ode to the Orange County revival led by the late Chuck Smith and his church Calvary Chapel Santa Ana.

As detailed yesterday, the Orange County revival had as a huge part of its inspiration the fervent belief that Christ’s return was imminent, this making evangelism even more primarily important than the norm for an evangelical movement. With this breath of God in their sails, Mustard Seed Faith worked itself and its one album as hard as possible; band member Oden Fong recalls a stretch where it was playing three hundred and fifty concerts a year. Eventually the strain became too much, and the band dissolved in the late 1970s.

In 1980, the band’s creative core (Fong, Lewis McVay, and the late Pedro Buford) decided to tidy up loose ends. With the help of several Calvary Chapel musical alumni they recorded and independently released Limited Edition. The album has been rereleased by Fong on his Bandcamp page.

Musically, Limited Edition slides nicely into the 1970s adult rock genre populated by Michael McDonald (then with The Doobie Brothers), the less funky leanings of Boz Scaggs, and the like. Nothing is too loud, yet nothing save the album’s closing track, a beautiful acoustic song that would grace any wedding, is too soft to preclude toe-tapping. The tunes are well-constructed and friendly; easily accessible relatively easy listening. You could slip Limited Edition into the record stack at a party where adult rock from its era was being played and no one would notice due to a drop-off in style or quality. However, the moment someone paid the lyrics some attention, they would notice all right.

Unsurprisingly, Limited Edition is ministry-driven from beginning to end. Full-throated evangelism sits next to exhortational calls urging those who already believe not to stray, and return to the fold if they have already gotten off track. There is storytelling in “Sidney the Pirate” and a whole lot of naming name. Specifically, the Name of Jesus. There is no ambiguity; no wondering if a song is about God or a girlfriend. Mustard Seed Faith was all God all the time, and made no secret of its intent at any point along the way.

Limited Edition and its predecessor Sail On Sailor are why Mustard Seed Faith has as legitimate a claim as any to the title of Christian rock’s quintessential band. Musically it fit into what was happening at the time, while lyrically it stood out with bold, uncompromising calls to faith in Christ. Limited Edition may seem like a nostalgia piece, but even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the album’s quality in a genre still listened to by multitudes, and timeless message still needed by all, make it as fresh an album as anything recorded in the here and now.

Next post will review Fong’s second solo release Invisible Man.

Oden Fong brings back classic music and uncomfortable truths

Oden Fong, mainstay of the early Maranatha Music days courtesy of his tenure with Mustard Seed Faith, has made available his two solo albums from back in the day: Come For The Children, originally released in 1979, and Invisible Man which first came out in 1986. He has also rereleased Mustard Seed Faith’s second album Limited Edition, it having made its debut in 1980. The band’s first album, 1975’s Sail On Sailor, is available digitally courtesy of Maranatha.

At first glance it might seem strange, reviewing three albums that came out no more recently than thirty years ago. Incorrect perception. The albums have been unavailable for so long in any format it is extremely doubtful most people under fifty so much as know of their existence, let alone having heard them. This is entirely to their loss. Add to this how those who do know and love the music have in all likelihood not owned a copy (or been able to play one if they did) for decades, and the return of this trio becomes more than a nostalgia trip. Rather, it becomes a reminder of realities both painful and peaceful.

Up first is Come For The Children. The late Rick Griffin’s striking album cover artwork depicts Jesus’ head wearing a hood as He overlooks a valley of blood. It was Griffin’s depiction of the battle of Armageddon. Not exactly your average worship album material; but Come For The Children is not warm fuzzy all the feels material.

Musically Come For The Children defies easy categorization. It contains elements of arena rock’s first generation (Boston, Foreigner, leaning toward the latter), yet has an anthematic style its contemporaries never quite reached. Part of this stems from producer Jonathan David Brown’s lush without becoming overblown style. The main contributor is that Fong was clearly totally disinterested in creating anything that fit in with what was the overwhelming majority of contemporary Christian music at the time, a landscape dominated by the likes of Evie. Come For The Children is unashamedly purposeful art, a work where even as the music is of highest quality, said music serves as a vessel for Fong’s message. And oh, what a message.

It bears mention that Fong was and is a product of Calvary Chapel in the 1970s, in which the late Chuck Smith pastored a flock of young Jesus people quite separate from traditional churchgoers, what with the hippie hair, clothes, and music. Smith firmly believed that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent, therefore placed tremendous emphasis on evangelism so that as many people as possible would come to know Christ as Lord and Savior before His Return. Smith also believed in a strongly literal interpretation of prophetic Scriptures, most noticeably the Book of Revelation. Its gruesome depiction of the coming Antichrist and God’s apocalyptic judgment of the earth and its inhabitants who rejected Him tied into the fuel that fed Calvary Chapel, and its artists including Mustard Seed Faith and Fong. Its fruit was their being bold, blunt, and if need be brutal in telling others about what they believed would soon transpire.

With this background, there should be no surprise that Come For The Children’s title track makes no bones about the fact that at the Second Coming not everyone will be going to heaven. There is a hell, and judgment, and those who proclaim “only God can judge me” will discover that He has not only reserved the right to do so but will execute same.

The album is not all fire and brimstone. Fong addresses the loneliness of life without Christ plus the joys and struggles of following Him. There is a thread of tenderness woven throughout Come For The Children, an earnest call to saved and unsaved alike. Fong is not using his Bible to beat people over the head, but rather speaks from it as the Word of Life, the blueprint of a genuine wish for all to be saved.

No one makes music like this today. Few even from the fieriest of pulpits preach with such unblinking honesty. Come For The Children was and is a true masterpiece; a vital part of Christian rock history remaining vibrant after all these years.

Next post will look at Limited Edition by Mustard Seed Faith.

The three albums are available for download in several formats, including CD quality, at Fong’s Bandcamp site.

Kemper Crabb Defines The Problems With Lone Wolf Christianity

In a world gone quite mad, it has never been more apparent that we need each other to get through the insanity. The divisions of race, color, creed, gender, economic and/or social standing, and the like are being violently exploited by those who profit from their repercussions. These profiteers will use the insane actions of one they oppose as a bloody brush to paint all they oppose as being in solidarity with the one, yet immediately dismiss and explain away the actions of (i.e., murders committed by) one with whom they are ideologically aligned as those of an irrational individual with no connection to their causes; one for whom there can be no possible explanation regardless of how the individual him or herself clearly identifies the cause in which name they kill.

It may seem like the height of irrelevance to discuss the ‘lone wolf Christian’ at the present time. Not so. Unity in the face of dividers is our strength as believers; a refusal to allow the enemy any opportunity to pick, freeze, personalize, and polarize the one who stands for Christ. With that I defer to Kemper Crabb, author of Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church, and our ongoing interview.

 

In the book you strongly counsel against the lone wolf mindset among Christians; going it alone as a believer rather than being an active member of the church. Why do we see so much of the lone wolf mentality? Also, is the plethora of individual, independent churches part of this phenomenon?

Hmmm. Well, this is a problem concerning the One and the Many, a question of, I guess you’d say, imbalance. What I mean by this is that, since we’re created in the Image of God, we’re intended to reflect Who God is (on the creaturely level, of course). God is Triune, One God in Three Persons, Unified in His Essence or Substance, and Diverse in His Persons. The Lord is not more One than He is Three, and He’s not more Three than He is One, which is to say, God’s not more Diverse than He is Unified. He is Both Equally, and always has been. God is the Foundation of Balance, the Paradigm for human society (family, state, business, etc.), since God’s Image is revealed in humanity in two genders, multiple relations, and so forth, not just in individuals alone.

God has always dealt with men in terms of the Covenant, and the Covenant is modeled on the Relationships between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, adjusted to the Fallen creaturely level. This is important because every Christian is a member of the New Covenant, which is what defines the Church. And both the Model of the Holy Trinity Himself, and the Covenant predicated by that Model, present and demand a balance between the One and the Many, the corporate and the individual, as the most helpful and most revelatory state of being for human society, which includes the way the Church is supposed to work.

Now, the Church has very frequently been deformed in an imbalance toward either the institutional/corporate or the individual member. For instance, the State Churches that arose after the Reformation in places like Germany and England eventually hardened into moralistic, formal institutions which emphasized a doctrinal standard in terms of mental assent and outward action, but did not value (or urge) the necessity of personal inward affective experience, seeking only a similar conformity to external standards.

In response to such institutional corporate aridity, movements like Pietism and the Great Awakenings arose which emphasized the value and necessity of personal rebirth and relationship to Christ resulting in affective individual experience. This was a needful corrective for the singular over-emphasis on the corporate aspect of the Church of the time.

However, the balancing emphasis on personal relational experience with Christ, in its justifiable central emphasis in the First Great Awakening had become, by the Second Great Awakening, itself an overemphasis on personal experience (as seen in things like Charles Finney’s systemization of techniques to induce an emotional experience of “conversion”) which actually gradually overwhelmed and displaced the desire and perceived need for doctrinal boundaries and ordered corporate worship in American consciousness.

It was this new imbalance which spawned American hyper-individualism and individual orientation (a great book on this is Michael Horton’s Made In America, by the way), and this same imbalance was strengthened by (and conversely strengthened) the Romantic Movement’s subjective self-orientation which had come about as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism.

The assumption that it was the realm of interior subjective experience which was the only absolutely vital and meaningful part of life tended to downplay the life of the mind and corporate scholarship among Evangelicals by the early years of the 20th Century, and slogans like “no creed but Christ; no law but love; no book but the Bible” began to define the attitudes and worldviews of huge numbers of Evangelicals.

Self-reliance of this sort flies in the face of the fact that Scripture teaches that we desperately need each other in terms of the varied Gifts of the Spirit given for the building up of the whole Body of Christ, of others, as 1 Corinthians 12 plainly teaches (the gifts of teaching and discernment of spirits both examples of vital gifts), or in evangelism, as when Jesus sent the 12 Disciples off two by two in Mark 6:7-13 (or the 70 disciples in Luke 10:1-20), or in worship, since Jesus is present in a way different from His Normal Presence with us when two or more gather in His Name, as Matthew 18:20 tells us. In fact, 1 Peter 2:9 tells us that believers are a holy nation, not just gathered individuals who have similar religious beliefs. No, we are actually, through Jesus, members of one another, as Romans 12:5 lays out.

It is much easier in some ways to ignore all this and still think we can accomplish the same things by ourselves that we would in a corporate setting, and there’s no question that disregarding Jesus’ Command that we be servants in Galatians 5:13 as Jesus was revealed to be in Matthew 20:28. If our spiritual quest is defined by a search for quick-fix solutions and a feel-good experience, we won’t feel the need to obey the Bible’s urging toward responsibility to and for one another: we’ll simply serve ourselves individually without much regard for others.

The definition of Christian life as primarily experiential and self-driven has moved many churches to begin to model themselves on a consumerist philosophy, and become driven by parishioner/consumer desire rather than by the preaching of the Word. It is true that there have been numbers of colossal failures by churches to discipline the rebellious, help the fallen/spiritually wounded (rather than simply whisk them away quietly to avoid dealing with the hassle and pretend things like that don’t happen in those congregations.

There’s also been beaucoup abuse, emotional, sexual, and financial of people by church leaders (which leaders tend to try to avoid accountability to denominational leaders or committees so as to continue to easily perpetrate their wickedness). As a result, many people tend to withdraw from church membership/attendance altogether, and many congregations, fearing unjust denominational manipulation from corrupt or ungodly Church officers, simply withdraw from greater accountability, giving rise to a bushel of independent congregations (further fueled, of course, by the rampant individualist drive to self-sufficiency in most of their congregants).

All these abuses are real, and in this age of increasing centralization and control over so many areas of our lives, it’s easy to want smaller expressions of corporate life, Church included. But what is truly needed is a return to Biblical balance in our churches and everywhere. That alone will fulfill God’s multiple-faceted calling to us all.

Eve Selis puts the class back in country

A few posts ago, I quoted Billy Smiley (Whiteheart, The Union of Sinners and Saints) commenting on a dearth of lyrics by Christians reaching beyond the most simplistic of praise and worship notions. He wondered where the storytellers had gone. Thankfully, they still exist; Christians who address life beyond Sunday morning gatherings of singing what they have been led to believe they must sing in order to remain in God’s good graces. In the aforementioned post I justifiably praised San Francisco Bay Area punkish band The Hyperdrive Kittens for disregarding the “rules” and making top notch music without compromising faith or art. Enter another artist similarly inclined, namely Eve Selis. Her latest album See Me With Your Heart is something special.

Musically Selis has little in common with The Hyperdrive Kittens. Selis’ music is modern country, albeit mercifully minus the formulaic clichés that presently permeate (or plague, if you prefer) the genre. Where the similarities are drawn is how both The Hyperdrive Kittens and Selis create honest, skillful without soulless slickness music.

Selis has a knack for strong melodies, be they woven into fast or slow tunes, that keep things moving at a strong clip throughout. She is equally adept at howling stompfests such as “Still Have A Long Way To Go” or mellow ruminations like “Already Gone.” Selis is also a superb lyricist, weaving life tales speaking of moments both high and low with genuine emotion and heart.

Yes, Virginia (or in this case San Diego where Selis resides), there is still non sex-drenched country music and Christians who speak with heart and skill. Want proof? This album is it. See Me With Your Heart is a terrific work that gets better with every listen.

The album is available at Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes.

Meanwhile, Back At The Blog, Some More Q&A With Kemper Crabb

While Examiner.com gets ready to sink slowly in the west, I’ve been asking around trying to find a new home for my assorted Christian rock reviews and interviews. There is one solid lead, but it would most likely be restricted content-wise to news about touring acts. Better than nothing, but hardly sufficient.

In the meantime, rather than sit around and brood methinks it best to resume posting here at my neglected little way station on the information superhighway. Most likely no more politics; save for the occasional Facebook and/or Twitter rant I’ve had quite enough of that world. Let the peacocks strut and sycophants salivate; there are far more important matters at hand they will not, and cannot, discuss.

So, that all said, back to my interview with Kemper Crabb regarding topics brought up in his new book Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church.

 

Throughout the book you, via straightforward Scriptural examples, illustrate God’s intended immense empowerment of, and working through, the church in not only the earthly realm but even the heavenly. Why is this fundamental teaching so unheard and/or unheard of in today’s church?

Hmmm. Well, that’s an important question, I think. It has, however, multiple vectors that feed any kind of answer, and this shouldn’t surprise us, since any kind of motivation to do something, especially something sinful, and you’re going to find varied motivations, frequently even within a single person.

Generally, though, I think there are three or four basic reasons as to why these truths are largely unknown in the Church today. The first, and likely the single most important, since it affects most of the other reasons on one level or another, is the creeping reductionism that has influenced the modern Evangelical Church’s doctrine and practice for at least a hundred and fifty years or so (longer in some quarters), an orientation that I call Christian reductionism. Christian reductionism is willing to posit that the central Creedal doctrines of the Bible (the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Resurrection, Creation, etc.), but remain skeptical about other supernatural aspects of Scriptural teaching, preferring to view those things in the most reductionistic fashion possible, only giving credence to any such possibility when all naturalistic explanations are exhausted, if they finally give any credence at all to them (a salient antidote to this tendency happens not infrequently when a family member or congregant ends up demonized, and there’s no naturalistic explanation).

Some believers adopt this attitude because they seek to make the Faith more palatable to its cultured despisers, and, at least theoretically, bring them to belief. Most of today’s believers, though, have simply absorbed the naturalistic skepticism concerning the supernatural promulgated in modern education and the media, and, though they will accept the far-removed supernatural events of the central Creedal beliefs, anything closer to them in time and space is subject to their background reductionistic bent. This tendency is also far too prominent in seminary training, and many pastors pass it on to their parishioners, either implicitly or explicitly.

So, when Scripture presents a teaching that we actually worship in Heaven while still on the Earth, or that the more obviously supernatural spiritual gifts exist (even though all of the Spirit’s Gifts are innately supernatural in their origin and operation, though gifts like teaching and administration seem to not be so), or that demons actively engage humans to do harm, or that God actively judges nations rather than just individuals, to a Christian reductionist these beliefs are either dismissed as untenable or filed away as irrelevant or unbelievable.

And, of course, Christian reductionist ministers just don’t teach those troubling doctrines, except perhaps to explain them away in naturalistic or lunatic-fringe categories. Not to mention that there appears to be a widely-present fear that if “controversial” doctrines are taught or affirmed, numbers might dip in the congregation (and, consequently, tithes might do the same).

Now, there are Charismatic branches of the American Church who do embrace the supernatural as a matter of course, but since many (though not all) of these branches are much more concerned with seeking experience than they are with arriving at a doctrinally-coherent and integrated Biblical world-and-life-view, they frequently misunderstand or attempt to practice these doctrines, resulting in an imbalanced and regrettably goofy way, which just goes to further marginalize and ridicule these ideas among the more doctrinally-oriented Christian reductionists.

Finally, there’s the simple truth that most of us simply don’t know the Bible, or, if we know it much at all, we don’t know it deeply, so, even if our world-view allows more supernaturalistic possibilities (which taking Scripture seriously and learning it would definitely help that gig), if we don’t know the Bible, a broader world-view wouldn’t help in engaging these doctrines.

What’s needed, of course, is a knowledge of God’s Word engaged in an attitude that will take what it says seriously and be shaped by its teaching, and the courage to teach and practice them.

One Bad Pig sings that old-time gospel with a safety pin through its nose

One Bad Pig was never considered one of the “cool kids” of Christian rock during its tenure in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By its own admission, the band was not part of the punk culture it came together to reach through music; it was a ministry first. Not that the band’s artistry was unaccomplished, but its members did not live for the music nor live the lifestyle that usually accompanied its mix of punk and thrash.

Fast forward to 2016, where punk and thrash have established a hold on two successive generations who consider Sex Pistols and Green Day “classic rock” yet fervently listen to their musical offspring all the same. So why not get the sounder of swine back together and make some new music? Love You To Death is the result, and the band has re-assumed its music mantle twenty-five years after its last studio release without missing a squeal.

Love You To Death is not a bunch of old guys trying to relive lost youth by rocking out when their ability to do so has long since given out. Only singer Carey Womach’s not screaming very often stylistically separates the record from previous works such as Swine Flew. The sense of humor is still there, as is the band’s penchant for getting quite serious; an example is “Heads Will Roll” which unflinchingly tackles Christian martyrdom at ISIS’ bloody hands. Underneath it all is a very underrated band led by Paul Q-Pek’s blistering guitar work. The man can flat-out shred.

At its heart, One Bad Pig is a very traditional gospel band. The lyrics are direct; the call to Christ prevalent throughout. It is easy to picture most all of the band’s lyrics translating well to your average Sunday evening southern gospel concert. Musically, probably not, unless the audience was extraordinarily broadminded. One Bad Pig forever dispels the myth that you have to live it to play it. Its members do anything but live it, yet they play it very, very well.

The record is available at CD Baby.

Kemper Crabb discusses the whys behind places of worship decor

Church architecture is one of the commonly misunderstood elements in both the historic and contemporary church’s history. The complaint has often been lodged that a church should not be ornate or expensively decorated, this contradicting Christ’s commission to live simply and take care of the poor both within the church community and the world in general.

In the first of what will be a multi-part interview, Kemper Crabb, author of Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church, addresses this issue with a focus on the current American evangelical church.

In the chapter focusing on worship you mention how the purpose behind ornate churches was an effort to, as best as possible, replicate or at the least represent the heavenly tabernacle. It reminded me of an interview I read several years ago with the late Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel Santa Ana. He commented the reason behind his church’s mostly plain design was the belief we are in the last days, and given Christ’s imminent return it would be a waste of resources to create an richly decorated structure in which to worship. Is this a legitimate reason to strip down, as it were?

Yes, I realize that utilizing architectural or decorative aspects to represent the fact that the Church worships in Heaven as well as on Earth might seem like sort of a peripheral point, and in some ways it is. But from another perspective it is of central importance to do so, if possible (and it’s not always possible, of course), whether Jesus’ Return is imminent or not.

Let me say at the outset here that I do have (and have had for most of my adult life) tremendous respect for Chuck Smith and all that he thought and was used by God to accomplish in his life. That being said, however, I have to say that I disagree with his opinion on this point (a point that is not uncommon amongst many of us Evangelicals today, of course). Let me explain why that is.

In Matthew 24: 36, during a discussion Jesus was having with His disciples concerning His coming in judgment, He said:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”

Respectfully, in regards to those who hold the same opinion Chuck Smith did, many across the Church’s history have believed that the Return of Christ would be imminent in their day, and spent a great deal of time and energy orienting their lives around what they expected to be a fairly immediate event, and it was not.

Don’t get me wrong: we are to live our lives in regard to the belief that Christ will return, and that He may return in short order. But Peter in Acts 2: 16-21, during the sermon he preached just after the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the believers at Pentecost, applied the words of the Prophet Joel from Joel 2: 28, in which Joel prophesied that the events of the Day of Pentecost would occur “in the Last Days,” which Peter taught was happening at the time he was preaching. We’ve been in the Last Days since the birth of the New Testament Church, so I can only draw the conclusion that, in light of the fact that Jesus gave the Church the Great Commission to disciple all the nations in Matthew 28: 18-20 (which has taken a good deal of time so far), the Last Days are a period of time in which the regular pursuits and responsibilities of the Church are to be carried on in light of the fact that, though Christ might, of course, return in His Timing whenever He will, we should persevere in our callings, since no-one except the Father knows the actual time of Christ’s Coming (though I have to say an entire industry seems to have arisen, replete with books, teachings, t-shirts and movies, in a seeming attempt to out-guess the Secret Will of the Father).

Jesus, in telling a parable in Luke 19: 11-27 meant to teach that the fullness of the Kingdom was not yet imminent (as verse 11 tells us), spoke of a master telling his servants, “Do business until I return” (verse 13), which was meant to tell the disciples and those listening that His Return would take awhile, and that they should occupy themselves doing what He had commissioned them to do. The Greek word for “do business” here is from a root word, pragma, which is the word we get “pragmatic” from in English, and it means “to be occupied,” or “to carry on a business.” Jesus was telling the disciples to not sit around navel-gazing (or Heaven-gazing, as the angels rebuked the disciples for in Acts 1: 10-11), but to get on with their callings on Earth.

Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew Christ was returning the next day, He replied that he would plant a tree. When his questioner responded that the tree would never grow but a day older, Luther said that only the Father actually knew the day Jesus would return, and that Luther’s job, like all Christians, was to get on with their callings and leave the secret things to God. I paraphrase, of course, but I heartily agree with Luther here. I think the Church is to always live in light of Jesus’ Return, but I think that means we’re supposed to get on with our normal callings.

Which brings me to the question of Church architecture. Chuck Smith’s concern was to use the Church’s resources effectively in light of the possibility of Christ’s Return (which he thought imminent). Even had he been correct in that assumption, though, I still would have disagreed on this point. I think that our worship, the place and time when we gather with the redeemed in the Very Presence of God, where we hear the Word read and taught, and eat and drink (or see enacted with water) the Sacraments, is where we are primarily formed and shaped in terms of the vision, expectations, values, and desires of our evangelism, eschatology, relations with one another and with God, and our understanding of our vocations, our corporate and individual callings before the Lord, and basically in what we are to do and how we are to do those things.

I believe, therefore, that what takes place in the context of corporate worship has a great deal to reveal and reinforce with what the Church is and does. We aren’t, after all, disembodied souls or spirits, but are, as Jesus is, enfleshed, embodied. We’re supposed to offer even our bodies in what Paul in Romans 12: 1 calls “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Now, many people just see that as a command not to sin with our bodies (no gluttony, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc.), and it does mean that, but not only that. As incarnate beings, our worship itself is to involve our physicality, a truth which most churches recognize implicitly or explicitly.

For instance, all Christian churches practice the Sacraments, they baptize folks with water and eat bread and drink wine (or at least the fruit of the grape) together in the Lord’s Supper. They all stand to sing and hear the Scripture read, bow their heads (and fold their hands and kneel in some cases) to pray, utilize their voice-boxes to sing, extend “the right hand of fellowship” (or the kiss of greeting) to each other and visitors, and so forth. We have bodies. We’re supposed to worship with them, since we are to worship God with all we are.

The physicality of who and where we are are intended to remind us that we are to carry what we experience in worship out into the world in evangelism and discipleship, since even our worship takes place both in Heaven (where we’re seated in Christ, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2: 6, and as Hebrews 12: 22-24 shows) and on earth simultaneously. We utilize physical symbols to remind us of this (or should), which the raised platform or dais does (showing there’s a sense in which we ascend to the Heavenly Courts to worship; as Heb. 12: 22-24 tells us), the particular clothing of the ministers (even if it’s just a suit, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what message wearing the uniform of the business classes sends beyond calling attention to the fact that ministers are professionals), and so forth. Properly understood, in light of what the Bible teaches concerning worship, all these symbolic actions and clothes, and architectural aspects are meant to physically reinforce and remind worshipers what is actually taking place in worship.Beyond this, these physical aspects of worship are to reinforce and remind worshipers that their callings and the Gospel itself, is intended to actually impact the world in which we live, not just call us to only an interior or “spiritual” escapism.

God so loved the world (the Greek word is kosmos there in John 3: 16) that He gave His Only-Begotten Son to save by His Life and Death. In 2 Corinthians 5: 19, we are told that “God was in Christ reconciling the world (again, kosmos) to Himself.” Jesus didn’t come only to save our souls, but our whole lives and beings, as well as the world in which He intends for us to be sanctified and in which we are to do His Will (and which He will deliver on the day of our resurrection, as Romans 8: 19-24 says). Worship which downplays physicality and physical symbol betrays to some extent one of its own purposes. We are to “be occupied” until Christ returns in the world He has made and will redeem.

The purpose of church architecture is to physically symbolize the true nature of where our worship takes place, and what is happening there. Across the Church’s existence, the architecture of churches has changed across time, as various architectural expressions in various places change (for instance, ancient classical basilicas and Eastern churches differ in many ways from Western Romanesque and Gothic churches architecturally), but the basic things to be symbolized are the same, illustrating our Heavenly/Earthly worship and its intended Earthly impact. (This can easily be seen in Abbot Suger’s Medieval treatise on Gothic architecture, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis). Church architecture is massively helpful in reinforcing these fundamental understandings in the worship that shapes everything we are and do.

All this being said, it’s not always possible to arrange architecture the way we want, of course. New fellowships (such as the one I co-pastor in Katy with Frank Hart) don’t generally have their own buildings (NewChurch, our fellowship, meets in an athletic facility that one of our members owns; a very nice facility, but not necessarily designed to reinforce worship aspects), which is the case with poorer congregations or churches in predominantly non-Christian regions. In a Fallen world, we all have to deal with the situation we’re given on the ground, and it’s not always possible to accomplish the changes or do the things we want to.

There is an old theological concept that helps to think through the implications of all this. The Latin word esse means, basically, “essence” (see how that might relate etymologically there?), and it’s used to describe the basic theological necessities of the Faith (Biblical/creedal doctrines, regeneration, Sacraments, etc.), the fundamental things required for the Church to be the Church. Then there is the term bene esse, which means “good essence,” and it describes good things that help expand or reinforce the essential things of the Church’s existence and mission. Finally, there’s plene esse, which means “full essence,” describing a maximum potential of a fully-realized expression of the Church and the Faith.

There very likely has never in this Fallen world (except in the Life of Christ Jesus Himself) been a realization of plene esse (though we look for that in the New Heavens and Earth), though there have been, over a broad spectrum, realizations of bene esse, as the Church in various cultural and historical circumstances, been able to expand on good things that flow from our Faith’s esse. This is true in the case of Church architecture. Some periods of history in the West (the Medieval and Reformation periods, for instance) have seen the rise of church buildings that sought, to the extent that resources of skill, material, time, and money allowed, to instantiate as many of the symbolic principles of the kind of doctrinally-driven Church architecture I mentioned in my book as possible. Which is great, and opened up before us possibilities and realizations not generally dreamed-of before that.

However, most churches across Church history have not had the necessary resources to realize a even a fuller bene esse. Resources, after all, must be triaged, and people matter more than buildings, and there are frequently not enough resources even for human needs at hand to do much. This is, regrettably, all true. But it’s rarely a complete either-or situation. Things can be done, even in small ways.

The first thing that must be resisted, however, is an overweening utilitarianism concerning the worship of the Lord. This can be illustrated by one of the Events in Jesus’ Life: His Anointing, recorded in Mark 14: 3-10, which tells us:

3 And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. 4 But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? 5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. 7 For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. 8 She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. 9 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”

Now, in some ways the criticism of the woman’s action was well taken. It was an extremely costly gift. Spikenard was a fragrant perfume-like ointment which was very expensive (and 300 denarii was equal to about a year’s work of labor in Jesus’ Time) and rare commodity. Jesus undoubtedly knew this, and it was the very costliness of the gift which made it appropriate to be given to Him. Jesus recognized that the money could have been spent on the poor, but He also recognized that sacrificial and expensive gifts are appropriate to be offered to Him, even though “the poor you have with you always.” Interestingly, it was this event of seeming waste that drove Judas to betray Jesus to the chief priests for, of course, money, as verses 10-11 of Mark 14 make clear.

We are to care for the poor and the sick, and to fund missions and such ministries, But one of the ministries of the Church is to minister to God and His People in worship. We mustn’t draw the same conclusion as Judas, that it is inappropriate to make costly gifts at the right time for the worship of Jesus. Sometimes architecture falls under this rubric, it seems to me.

And here”s the other thing about this: there is always something we can do in most worship settings, to reinforce the fact that we worship in Heaven through Christ and that that worship is to affect the world, not just provide a means of escape. We can utilize tapestries, framed prints, banners, or whatever, as symbols of our true worship situation, so long as we do this in clear explanation of the Biblical truths behind those symbols, to great effect, if we just will.

Theology that denigrates the truth and effect of where we worship and what happens there is, in my opinion, one of the things that has led the Church in the West into perceived irrelevancy and spiritual powerlessness. There is a balance to be realized here by the Church in our time, and we haven’t been succeeding.

Daniel Amos goes back to the future backwards with “Vox Humana” re-release

A few years ago, Daniel Amos bandleader Terry Taylor commented on his band’s work from the early and mid-1980s, saying, “When I look back to the old songs and the old catalog, some of the stuff is too mired, musically and sonically speaking, in the trendiness of the time; that new wave thing. The only record in my opinion that works well that’s new wave-ish is Vox Humana, and the reason it does is because it’s a joke on itself; it’s a sci-fi joke. It’s a serious record on many levels, but it takes that form and brings it back around on itself so you can listen to it and realize it’s conceptual, and it uses a synthesizer thing to do a ‘50s sci-fi B-movie.”

The aforementioned 1984’s Vox Humana has now received a deluxe reissue treatment. The two disc set features both the original album remastered and a plethora of previously unreleased studio tracks plus alternate mixes, recordings, and one live track.Focusing on the original album, the increase in punch and clarity on the remastered disc is tremendous. Earlier issues of Vox Humana were thin-sounding and in some cases plagued with incorrect timing blocks making songs, when selected individually, start well into the track instead of the actual beginning. Despite this, bootleg copies of the disc frequently appeared on assorted online stores, desperate fans snapping them up as the original CD was well nigh impossible to find at any price.

With quality assurance now an integral element of the Vox Humana listening experience, the next question is how well does the record hold up after thirty-two years. Odd as it may seem, the answer is simultaneously quite well and not very well at all. On the down side, the synth drums prominent throughout are painfully dated, and songs such as “Dance Stop,” designed for live audience interaction, make for uninteresting listening after the fact. Yet even with these drawbacks, Taylor’s gift for melody and biting lyrics shines through, making Vox Humana far more than a nostalgia trip.

Like much of Taylor’s 1980s work, Vox Humana is overall not inaccurately comparable to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which he moves back and forth between sharp sarcasm and earnest pleadings to the Corinth church to get on the right track. Certainly songs such as “Home Permanent” bristle with barbs at superficial, simpleton naïveté Christianity. But then, Taylor offers songs such as “Sanctuary” with its direct appeal for Jesus as the only hiding place worth seeking, and “As The World Turns” exploring the reality of life in Christ while living in a fallen world.

Vox Humana is not Daniel Amos’ best work. That honor goes to Dig Here, Said The Angel. But for those nostalgic for ‘80s rock/pop and/or seeking for previously hidden songwriting gems, Vox Humana is well worth repeated listens.

The album is available at Daniel Amos’s website.

“Liberation Front” by Kemper Crabb a clarion call for church renewal and revival

In the early to mid 1970s, commercials for Mennen Skin Bracer aftershave were a staple of network television, especially sports programming. The tag line was simple: after the announcer deeply intoned how Skin Bracer’s skin tightner and chin chillers wake you up like a cold slap in the face, a man would slap some on – always twice – and end the commercial with, “Thanks – I needed that.” While minister, teacher, musician, and author Kemper Crabb’s aftershave preference is known but to himself and immediate family, he has taken Skin Bracer’s message to heart. His new book Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church is a Scriptural muscle-guided slap in the face to both individual believers and the church as a whole calling them, and it, back to the Biblically-ordained role and power the church has been divinely ordained to uphold in earth and in heaven.

Crabb is a Renaissance man, not only in how his music over the years has often referenced said era and earlier both musically and lyrically, but in his thorough knowledge of both Scripture and history. He makes his case both straight from the Bible and early church teachers/teachings that church membership is vital to every believer, alongside this outlining and then carefully detailing what Crabb labels the church’s seven modes (Romance, Family, Body, Temple, Pillar and Ground of Truth, Weapon, Liberating Army). Throughout the text Crabb exhorts, challenges, and confronts the reader to discard what he perceives as an emasculated view of the church’s role in society on all levels, instead embracing the Scriptural mandates and promised empowerment to be an effective force in first the lives of believers and from there the lives of others.

The book is not a mere recitation of the Riot Act to Christians equally afraid of their own shadow and determined to go it alone. Crabb points out that the way to genuine peace in Christ comes through embracing His divine empowerment, and its corresponding ramifications, in both the present day heavenly places and here on Earth. In his view, the church is painfully shortchanging itself, and its members painfully shortchanging themselves, by failing to embrace and live out the nearly unimaginable strengths available for the asking once the entirety of Biblical guidelines and promises are accepted, with tremendous emphasis on the neglected if not outright rejected supernatural portions of true life in Christ.

Liberation Front is not an easy read on multiple fronts. Crabb refuses to dumb down his writing, and as noted the book is void of warm spiritual-sounding fuzzies designed to make the reader feel good about him or herself regardless of where they are in life. But for the believer seeking adherence to, and clarification of, his or her true place in the church, the church’s true place in the world, and what God has in mind for His Bridegroom the Church, Liberation Front is as vital and mind/heart/soul-expanding as it gets in today’s world.

The book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.