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.

“All At Once” by Phil Keaggy a blues and pop triumph

A hitherto believed impossibility has recently stunned many in the recorded music industry. Last year, catalog releases, catalog in this instance defined as releases more than eighteen months old, for the first time outsold new releases. And not by a small amount: over four million more catalog releases were purchased than the latest, and apparently considered to be something other than greatest, new music to hit the CD racks and download sites. The primary reason for this is older music fans being far more conditioned, therefore far more likely, to value music as a commodity than millennials. Thus, baby boomers and Generation Xers alike are much more likely to buy music than millennials, said demographic content with streaming whatever strikes their fancy today and tossing it aside tomorrow.

With increasing frequency, veteran artists are simultaneously taking advantage of their music’s cherished status, and freeing themselves from all music industry commerciality standards, by going directly to their fan base via social media to fund their next project through different sites. Master guitarist Phil Keaggy, who for four decades has thrilled audiences with his liquid fire playing and ofttimes gentle melodic rock/pop tunesmithing, has taken advantage of this by turning to his fans to in essence pre-buy his latest release, entitled All At Once. Those who did have been richly rewarded.

Keaggy is one of the rare breed of artists who is at his or her absolute best when completely left to his or her own devices. Freed by his fans to make an album strictly for his fans, Keaggy fully taps into his two main strengths, namely melodic blues and McCartneyesque pop, and cuts loose with all the glee of a youth finally able to crank up his or her stereo because his or her parents are out of the house. In a lesser artist’s hands this could lead to self-indulgent slop, but Keaggy sails though with nary a hiccup. Be it the full in the face delicious bluesy smack of “Mercy,” the pure pop wistfulness of the title track, or many points in-between Keaggy makes pure magic happen. He easily slides between clear gospel and fun love song lyrics, everything marvelously tied together by his guitar work mixing breathtaking cascading runs at near inhuman speed with soulful stinging licks blessed with angelic power.

A few days ago, a review of The Union of Sinners and Saints debut CD mentioned a song included therein titled “Old Guys Rule.” In Keaggy’s case, old guys not only rule, they demonstrate an ability to burn the frets off a guitar with skill and purpose most every other musician on the planet can only dream of approaching. All At Once is an exhilarating, tuneful, soulful thrill ride.

“The Warbler” by Steve Hindalong quietly succeeds

As rock‘n’roll approaches its sixties, with many of its leading creators doing the same if not having long since passed said mark, the question in a music landscape presently inundated by dreary autotuned virtual instrument laden mojo-less pop garbage is how to maintain relevance to a new generation unaware of what actual music created by human beings sounds like. Today’s audience is perfectly acceptant of lip synced pseudo-concerts during which empty on-stage bombast is eagerly lapped up in lieu of genuine expression. In response, some veteran artists content themselves with endlessly recycling aging hits for aging fans. Thankfully, there are exceptions; artists with a solid résumé yet unwilling to rest on their past work, instead pushing on to find new expressions. Such is the case with Steve Hindalong’s new solo release The Warbler.

Hindalong, known in Christian alt rock circles as the drummer and lyricist for The Choir and among the church at large as the cowriter of “God Of Wonders,” has assembled a mature yet fresh collection of quiet, textured rock in the vein heavily mined by Death Cab For Cutie without copying the “I Will Possess Your Heart” purveyors and variations thereof. There are natural traces of The Choir’s dreamy musical musings without coming across as a Choir record with Hindalong instead of Derri Daugherty on lead vocal. The collection is even throughout, but two songs do stand out: “Unparalyzed” — cowritten with Hindalong’s “God of Wonders” collaborator Marc Byrd — with its gentle but consuming throb, and “For a Lifetime,” a straightforward love song combining the triple scoop sweetness of a strong hook, singalong melody, and the sublime lyric ‘I fell in love with you in a moment / For a lifetime.’

Those hoping for “God Of Wonders Part II” will be disappointed by this album’s introspective, thankfully minus excessive shoe-gazing, nature. The album itself is anything but a disappointment. In nature, the warbler is a rather indistinct bird, but in Hindalong’s case The Warbler is a welcome product from an autumn lion producing, in lieu of a roar, a pleasant modern purr.

The album will be available starting July first at The Choir’s website.

The Union of Sinners and Saints bring Christian rock back

Earlier this month, veteran Christian rocker Billy Smiley, best known for his work in Whiteheart, wrote: “… I have a deep hope and a challenge to the young musicians out there. I want to encourage you to go where no one has gone yet. Don’t imitate, but create. Use historical influences (as we all have) to create what you are going through, with your questions and journeys, and write great songs the world will connect to.” With the release of the self-titled debut The Union of Sinners and Saints, Smiley’s new band with Petra lead singer John Schlitt, the challenge to young musicians now includes trying to keep up with the old guys.

As can be expected given its leadership, The Union of Sinners and Saints is well-honed muscular melodic rock, familiar without falling into formulaic shallowness. Schlitt’s well-preserved voice retains its grit while still hitting the high notes with ease, the band featuring accomplished veterans such as Jon Knox (Adam Again and Whiteheart) alongside more recent talent in the presence of Jason Fowler serving up a massive foundation for him to lay his voice atop. Covers of Whiteheart (“Independence Day”) and Petra (“Beyond Belief”) do the originals full justice, and the pure garage rock snarl of “Old Guys Rule” alongside the subdued progressive rock vibe of “Bittersweet” are standouts among a stack of solid originals by Smiley with major contributions by Schlitt and Peter Furler of Newsboys fame. The ballads never dip into saccharine and the rockers truly rock.

In the aforementioned article by Smiley, he lamented the demise of Christian artists being able to tell stories with their songs, instead seeing a multitude of look-alike sound-alike imitators of benign secular music genres churn out endless, repetitive to distraction worship tracks. Unlike most from previous generations who are content with playing curmudgeons online but offering no alternative, Smiley along with Schlitt and company have gone out and done something about it. The Union of Sinners and Saints is not solely a great old school Christian rock album. It is a great rock‘n’roll record period; the kind one often assumes no one makes anymore. To the tremendous benefit of all, The Union of Sinners and Saints have made one.

The Hyperdrive Kittens rock out the alley

On first, second, and even third glance Back To The Alley, San Francisco Bay Area rock‘n’roll band The Hyperdrive Kittens superb debut CD, seems like an odd choice to mention in conjunction with evangelical news. Once placed into proper context, the connection becomes obvious.

Yesterday, Billy Smiley, veteran Christian rocker best known for his work in Whiteheart and presently involved with The Union Of Sinners And Saints, wrote an article titled The Musings of an Artist and Producer in Today’s Music Culture, posting it on the band’s Facebook page. Quoting from same:

Two statements that I have read recently gave even more clarity to my own thoughts while John Schlitt (Petra) and I talked, wrestled, and worked on lyrics and music that we were writing for our new album The Union of Sinners and Saints. Our perspective from an additional twenty years of living, learning, and being away from the popular Christian culture that we were both part of and in in the 80s and 90s helped us write with a perspective of “What can I do in this season of my life that is meaningful,” “How can we use this platform to encourage others to do the same with their lives,” and “Where is this world heading into?”

I do not necessarily long for the golden years of the music industry (although I am so thankful to have grown up in the creative decades of the late 60s and 70s where music seemed to thrive on each artist wanting to be different from the next), but John and I both seem to have a passion to almost prove ourselves all over again, because we have to write and we have to sing. That is what we love to do!

One of the statements that triggered this response from me came from a fellow musician last month, Regie Hamm, who said:

“Christian music as the platform for an artist performing for an audience is pretty much a thing of the past. It has morphed into a forum for worship leaders. The new incarnation of ‘faith-based music’ is the white, acoustic guitar-playing singer/songwriter who has a good (but nondescript) voice. He is just dangerous enough looking to give him some street cred. And his music will be a very well constructed amalgam of all of the least sexual popular music of the day.

“In the end, it will still essentially be created with barriers and roadblocks and hindrances. And there’s the rub. Creativity requires freedom. Why did everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Katy Perry start out in Christian Music … but then leave? An artist can only paint the same painting – with implied instructions to only use the same seven colors – so many times.

“I love Jesus. But I would imagine even HE probably gets tired of having his name continually rhymed with ‘frees us.‘”

Also:

I listen to Christian music now and ask, “Where are the poets? Where are the questions? Where are the champions or thought? Where are the dreamers? Where have they gone? What are the mysteries around us that we still don’t understand and are willing to write about and question?” As Christians shouldn’t we be obsessed with humbly challenging the culture of today with the best music, art, and performance the world has ever seen? Why don’t we do that?

Enter The Hyperdrive Kittens. Three of its four members are openly Christians (since recording the CD in question the band has added a fifth member who is also Christian), coincidentally the same percentage of believers as in U2. Yet even with this, it is highly doubtful the band will be invited to play at your local Christian music festival. This is entirely to said festival’s loss.

The Hyperdrive Kittens are pure rock‘n’roll, equally at ease with roots rock, punk, and most every point in-between. Lyrically, the band takes a very Alice Cooper-like approach in that without demeaning, or in any fashion offending, the members faith skillfully plays characters and tells stories designed to entertain with a knowing wink. The chuckle-inducing easy relatability of “Roommate Hell” and a searing rendition of “Fever,” originally made popular by Peggy Lee, are immediate standouts. Repeated listens reveal a collection of seven songs, all but the aforementioned “Fever” and one other composed by guitarist Lee Nails with one co-write with lead singer Jenene Curtis, with no weak links.

Billy Smiley justifiably simultaneously wonders about and laments the shallowness of today’s Christian music scene. Thankfully, there is at least one band out there bucking the trend. The Hyperdrive Kittens would easily stand out in a pre-fabricated music landscape of autotune and virtual instruments layered atop drum machines regardless, but the fact that The Hyperdrive Kittens operate out of a love of Christ takes their music from great rock‘n’roll in and of itself to great rock‘n’roll that is vital to everyone searching for truth in art.

The CD is available at Amoeba Music in Berkeley, California and directly from the band through its Facebook page.

Seventy Sevens “20 Years Gone” a superb compilation

As the traditional music industry’s business model transforms in the face of omnipresent streaming and decreasing physical product sales, one of this paradigm shift’s casualties is the greatest hits package. It had been a music industry staple that every year end would bring a large batch of compilation records perfect for gift-giving to the casual fan interested in only the hits instead of any given artist’s catalog work and diehard fan needing to have everything released by a favorite. Today, with artists’ product releases separated by years rather than months and fewer consumers owning anything on which to play a CD let alone an album, the greatest hits album has moved alongside aluminum Christmas trees as a relic from a bygone age. Happily, veteran Christian rockers The 77s have given their fans an early Christmas present in the form of Twenty Years Gone, a compilation of the band’s sublime highlights over the past two decades.

Drawing from the band’s catalog in its present trio format, Twenty Years Gone showcases the 77s dual strengths of dreamy, Beach Boys-infused pop and snarling, muscular blues. Ably abetted by Mark Harmon’s supple bass and Bruce Spencer’s subtle drums, songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Roe proves time and again he is not a musical chameleon, but rather a multi-faceted master of multiple styles, his tunes always laced with inventive yet comfortable melodies and total six-string mastery. Whether reeling off original songs so well constructed they come across as almost effortless or digging into roots bluesy gospel tracks from the past, Roe and compatriots have created a body of work demonstrating beyond question they are a quintessential American band come not to party the town down but rather to lay bare its soul, pointing out the pain of failed relationships and the healing that comes solely through Christ.

In an era where popular music has become both far more present and increasingly irrelevant in terms of something designed to savor and save, it is utterly refreshing to have a fresh reminder of music as art; not the stuffy pretentious puffery of musicians believing they are too good for their audience, but rather music touching heart, mind, and soul. Roe sings with more than a touch of sardonic with on “The Late Greats” ‘you won’t hear it on the radio.’ Thankfully, with Twenty Years Gone The 77s enable us to hear it period. Which if not the best gift to receive this Christmas surely ranks up there.

The CD and download is available at Bandcamp.