Thursday, October 26, 2006

More Than Ever CD Release

Last night we did a worship night/ CD release at the Ft. Collins Vineyard. The CD is called More Than Ever - Live From The Rockies and was recorded in conjucntion with the emerging worship leaders conference back in June. It's a good CD. You can download it at Itunes. This was a shot from stage during practice.
More to come...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Some Good Books

The following is a list of some good books I've come across in the last year with a review of each.

1. Heaven Is a Place on Earth - Michael E. Wittmer
Every once and a while I come across a book that challenge the fundamental ways I approach and view life—a book that doesn’t just tell me what to do but interrogates some of the most overlooked areas of life to get at my worldview. Like Mr. Anderson in the Matrix I’ve often felt things were not quite right but lacked the vocabulary or understanding of what is wrong. I need someone to peel back the skin of reasoning and engrained beliefs and point me to a new world of possibilities. Michael Wittmer does just that in Heaven is a Place on Earth, by challenging many rooted ideas within the modern evangelical worldview that are counterproductive to Christ-following and the kingdom of God. In recent years there have been hundreds of books that deal with the worldviews of modernism and postmodernism and often end up being rants of disgruntled revolutionaries trying to shake up the status quo. While those types of books are okay and needed occasionally they often fail to motivate people to positive action. This book is a challenging critique of modern evangelicalism without being cynical or biting. Wittmer challenges everything from our views of the after-life to our care for the environment and social justice in a way that doesn’t necessarily answer all problems in a tidy reductive way but gets one to at least begin thinking in the right direction. The subtitle to this book is “Why Everything You Do Matters To God”. In reading this book I have found a renewed passion for life from the mundane to the mountaintops.

2. Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
In recent years Rob Bell has emerged as timely and relevant voice in the church with his Nooma videos and now with Velvet Elvis. In Velvet Elvis, Bell challenges a lot of practices and thinking in the church, not so much as a theologian or revolutionary but, as an artist. I’ve heard many folks compare this book to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz but, apart from its cryptic title, I would say the comparison is not very good as far as content goes. The comparison is true when it comes to the style of writing though. Like Donald Miller, Rob Bell writes in a very creative and engaging way even if he lacks the writing skill to sustain very lengthy stories. However he sticks with his strengths—small chapters told in a narrative way which when brought together offer a repainting of the Christian faith. This is an easy read for even the most A.D.D.-challenged readers while also hitting on some weighty theology in a very practical and approachable way.

3. Simply Christian – N. T. Wright
I can think of no other author that has influenced me more in recent years than N. T. Wright. Wright is without a doubt one of the greatest theologians of our time. However, unlike many theologians who are locked away in the ivory towers of academia, N. T. Wright is firmly planted in the church. Simply Christian is almost an apologetic work on Christianity but rather than falling into the same old modernist arguments that have dogged evangelical debates for so long he approaches the longings in the hearts of humans for justice, beauty, and relationship which are, as he writes, “echoes of a voice”. I found this book very enjoyable though it dragged a bit is some places. Wright succeeds in getting to the core longings of humans and pointing us to the object of our longing. To some this book will be a bit of an acquired taste but others will immediately connect with Wright’s style of writing. It seems that this book was written with non-Christians in mind because it is very accessible to the uninitiated and would be a recommend read to those who are interested in Christianity.

4. The Last Word – N. T. Wright
Wright attempts to tackle the subject of Biblical authority. This is a good intro in to how we should approach scripture. Wright helps us to navigate a path between conservative and liberal biases and through the modernist/postmodernist quagmire to give us a fresh understanding of the Bible as a narrative work with real authority without just being some kind of proof-text to back up our ideologies.

5. Hebrews for Everyone – N. T. Wright
As I mentioned above Wright is a theologian who works and lives within the church. Since C.S. Lewis, I have not found someone capable of writing on so many levels. Wright has authored some seriously dense scholarly works but has always had in mind the everyday “Joe”. With his “For Everyone” series of Bible commentaries Wright has done for theology what Eugene Peterson did for Bible-reading with The Message. Wright goes through verse by verse with personal illustrations from life that help the reader get a handle on what the text is saying but without getting lost in academic language and heady theological discussions. I started with Hebrews For Everyone and have not been disappointed. It has been a helpful aid in Bible study and devotional reading. In addition to this installment Wright has also written “For Everyone” commentaries on all of the Gospels and Paul’s writings.

6. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places – Eugene Peterson
I haven’t finished this one even though I started it back at the first of the year. It’s not because it’s boring but because it’s so rich. This is the type of book you can read 5 or 6 pages and chew on them for a few days. I enjoy this book as devotional reading. Petterson’s conversational style of writing is prevalent throughout the book making the complex simple and exciting. In the introduction of the book he writes how much of this book came out of conversations with friends around the dinner table as well as scholarly circles. It reads like a conversation meandering here and there with frequent profound insights. The section on the-fear-of-the-Lord alone is worth the price of the book. This is the first of several books he is writing on conversational theology that is followed up by “Eat This Book”.

7. Living the Resurrection – Eugene Peterson
In Living The Resurrection, Eugene Peterson takes some of the themes from his other books and delivers them in a more concise manner. This is a book about everyday spirituality in everyday life. I’d recommend this one for folks who don’t like reading much because it’s smaller in scope it’s a good primer for other larger, in-depth works. In Living the Resurrection Peterson has the uncanny ability of wrestling us from mysticism to see the sacred in the common and the divine in the everyday.

8. The Great Divorce – C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis conquers the subject of hell in this brilliantly imaginative work. I’ve often struggled with some of the teachings on hell in the church and found that Lewis has some very fresh, though unorthodox views on the subject. Lewis’ “Hell” is a state of being where the departed still have the choice of heaven and yet they continue to reject it. Issues like pride and jealousy and insecurity are still very real in this hell and keep these ghosts of humans from choosing life and love and ultimately they continue to reject God. So rather than hell being a sealed deal when a person dies C. S. Lewis sees humans as continuing to have the ability to choose and yet being the sum total of all their decisions from their former life. Even though they can choose they can’t choose because their hearts have become hardened. I can’t help but wonder if C. S. Lewis might be on to something here. His thoughts on the subject are at the very least insightful.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Good Year For Music Part 1 - CD Reviews

It's been a real good year for music. The last few years were average but I have come across some good stuff this year. I'll deal with CDs then books and then live shows.


1. Paul Simon - Surprise
Back in the late 80's Paul Simon turned out arguably his greatest work - "Graceland". It's still in my top personal top 10 most influential albums of all time. However Paul Simon has not turned out anything close to the work of Graceland until now. On "Surprise" we find an interesting collaboration between Paul Simon and Brian Eno (one of my favorite producers). While I'd never have thought of putting the author of "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard" with the father of Ambient music, the collaboration works well. The product reminds me of what Peter Gabriel was going for on Up or even what Kevin Prosch was trying to do on Palanquin yet with much better results. The resulting product is beautifully arranged music framing some of Simon's best lyrics.

2. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - "All The Roadrunning"
It's awesome when 2 artists you love collaborate. When I heard that Knopfler and Harris had a CD coming out I was excited and yet a bit worried especially after Mark Knopfler's last CD - Shangri La which was rather mediocre. It turns out my worries were unfounded. This duet works great. Their voices work so well together and the music is what you would expect from Knopfler.

3. Bruce Cockburn - "Speechless"
In the last 12 years Bruce Cockburn has become one of my favorite songwriters. Cockburn is one of those artists who not only writes incredible lyrics but is also a skilled and innovative musician. "Speechless" is a collection of instrumentals which he has written over his 35 year career. Though many of these songs have appeared on other albums the collection works remarkably well together for such a vast time frame. There are also a couple of new instrumentals as well. This is a great CD to leave on in the background whether meditating or reading.

4. Over The Rhine - "Drunkard's Prayer"
I'm a newcomer to Over The Rhine but currently they are my favorite band. This is a simple CD recorded in their home studio with sparse instrumentation including upright piano, acoustic guitar, bass and the occasional cello. Karin Bergquist sings delicately these songs of her and her husband re-discovering what they love about one another, life, God etc. Drunkard's Prayer is an album of simple beauty, which is not diminished in the listening.

5. Tom Petty - "Highway Companion"
Tom Petty is at the top of his game on this one. Again he finds himself working with Jeff Lynn with whose help he turned out so much of his best work in the early nineties (Won't Back Down, Learning to Fly, Free Fallin' etc.). In fact this CD sounds like it could have come out around the same time as some of his most well known stuff. It's everything we like about Tom Petty.

6. Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood - "Out Louder"
Back in 1998 John Scofield got the funk organ trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood to collaborate with him on an album entitled "A Go Go". "A Go Go" is still one of my favorite CDs by both Scofield and MMW. So when I heard they were going to do another CD together I immediately went to to pre-order. The CD kicks off with "Little Walter Rides Again", an infectiously funky ditty that is the most accessible and coherent tune on the CD. Then they jump into the crazy fast funk of "Miles Behind" which features Medeski ripping up a distorted electric piano and Scofield furiously playing some real cool solos while Wood and Martin keep the thing rollin'. The whole album is definitely enjoyable, but in my opinion MMW work better backing Scofield up rather than Scofield joining them. Scofield has such a good sense of songwriting, which is not as apparent in most of these songs that were predominantly written by Medeski. MMW's love for extended jams and experimenting comes through strong as the album progresses, which is not bad but seems a little disjointed at times. All that said, I really dig anything by these guys and hope that they will continue to works together in the future.

7. Bill Frisell - "East West 1", "2", and "Further East Further West"
Like John Scofield, Bill Frisell is an innovator on the electric guitar. These 3 CDs are live recordings from his last major tour, which find him improvising with his simple trio of musicians that turn out some remarkably subtle and complex musical ideas. He does amazing covers of several songs. Two standouts are Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall Down" and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". Frisell's playing is a mixture of jazz, country and ambient with a splash of experimental which is just too cool. As a musician myself I am in awe of what these guys pull of live.

8. Music at Mars - "Worship in Every Direction"
I became interested in Mar Hill church after reading their pastor Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis. Since I'm a worship pastor I'm very interested in the way worship occurs within churches so I was glad to get a hold of this CD. The CD has the attention to art you would expect from Bell's church. The CD is actually 2 CDs in what looks like a small book with pictures from the live recording. I like the realness of this recording. The production is not slick and polished- just very natural. There's not a sense that they tried to be something their not on the recording or wow us with coolness. I particularly like the incorporation of readings into worship whether of scriptures or prayers. One thing I didn't much care for on this CD was the section of hymns such as "I'll Fly Away" and "When the role is Called Up Yonder" lead with banjo. It sounds a little scary when you hear thousands of white people singing songs like that with a banjo and violin. It almost reminded me of A Mighty Wind. But besides those few songs I really like the rest of the tunes. What I though was cool were the few songs they did with a drum line - very cool. In these days of mass-marketed worship it's good to hear something non-pretentious and worshipful happening within a church.