Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CCM revisited

Wow, it's been over five months since my last post on this blog - I think that's a record! No promises as to further posts, but if I have something to say or share that might be worth your time, I probably will...

Those of you who remember me in my early teenage years probably groaned (at least internally) when you saw the title of this post. I can hardly blame you! There was a time where I was a vocal, vehement, and usually ungracious critic of just about anything that could be included under the header of Christian contemporary music. At the time, I believed the primary 'issue' with CCM was that most artists and bands adopted, imitated, or incorporated musical styles that originated in contemporary secular culture. Over time, however, I have come to recognize a much greater degree of nuance to the issue than I ever did years ago.

Even so, I've been pondering recently where the real danger lies with CCM, and I am becoming more convinced that in most cases there are greater concerns than some of the musical styles incorporated in the 'genre'. I would summarize my latest musings under two broad points.

I recently listened to a lecture by Dr. George Grant from his Antiquities series, where he described a visit he made to Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. In preaching to a group of pastors there, he spoke words that few of them had ever heard or really understood: that Jesus is Lord over all. Many Christians, he said, take this glorious truth for granted because we have written so many catchy tunes about it that has practically been reduced to a mantra. Music, especially catchy music, has the ability to familiarize us with phrases and concepts to the point where we lose our grasp of the deep significance of what we are hearing or singing along with. This is an inherent quality of all chorus-driven music. One example that comes to mind is the song "He Reigns" by Newsboys. (I enjoy listening to that song, among others, by the way.) The chorus goes like this:

"Glory, glory, hallelujah
He reigns, He reigns"

Nothing wrong with those words, now, is there? The danger lies in the effect that such a repetitive chorus, spinning around in our minds, repeated over and over as we sing along can have on our ability to really grasp what it means to affirm and believe in our hearts that He reigns. Here we have deep theological concepts expressed in such simplistic terms that we run the risk of cheapening the sovereignty of God by reducing it to a mantra - a praise chorus. This is an issue more with us than with the music, or the words being sung. We tend to think at the level we read, listen, and converse at. In other words, what we feed ourselves in terms of literature and music has a direct impact on our intellectual activity. Have you ever read literature by a really talented author with a wide vocabulary (P.G. Wodehouse, for example) and found your vocabulary improve as a result? In the same way, the musical lyrics we fill our minds with inform our literal and theological vocabulary, perhaps more than we realize. Again, I'm not taking issue with the Biblical teaching that "He reigns", or even expressing the sovereignty of God in such terms. But we need to be cautious of letting our doctrinal understanding languish at the level of simplistic affirmation of basic principals. Singing "He reigns" is an affirmation of that truth but will not impart to you any deeper understanding of what you're affirming. By the way, this caution applies to any music we listen to or sing. Whether we are singing "He Reigns" 'round the campfire or "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" in corporate worship, we need to be wary of the cheapening effect that repetition and casual familiarity can have on the great truths of our faith.

The second danger is a matter of volume. Not decibals, mind you, but quantity. This is a simple issue. Speaking from experience, I know it's easy to spend way more time listening to music than reading, writing, praying, or meditating. Listening is a passive experience relative to those other activities, which require more active involvement. But when more time is spent imbibing theological concepts via the medium of music than is spent reading our Bibles, we have our priorities wrong. No matter how good the music, we should not allow it to tell us about God and His world as a substitute for, or in greater quantity than, what God reveals to us in His word. Our worldview (including our artistic sensibilities) must be anchored in Scripture--we know that, right?--but that won't happen unless we actually study it. After all, the only way we'll be prepared to evaluate the content of any music is if we know the standard to which it should be compared. Whatever we spend the most time consuming will progressively define our beliefs. Although there is still truth being sung in much CCM, there is also a lot of error, and we need to be wise to discern the difference by grounding our understanding of God and His world firmly in the Word.

Thanks for reading these thoughts. Writing them down was a good reminder to me, and I'd welcome your feedback if you disagree or have other thoughts to add.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

3-Chord Ditties

Over the years, in various situations from discussions of popular music with friends to debates with my theory professors in college about country music, I have heard and even used the criticism of the modern reliance (sometimes absolute) on three-chord harmony that is typical of the past 50 years of musical development. Many of you have heard modern worship music characterized as "three-chord ditties" (not an entirely inaccurate characterization in many cases). Although I understand the heart of the criticism, I am not sure this is the best way to make the argument against the tide of shallow worship music that has swept over the evangelical church.

 As I was playing the well-known Psalm setting "The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear" this morning during worship, I was struck by how the entire hymn relies on only three chords: D, G, and A. These three chords represent the I, IV, and V (Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant) tones in the D-major scale. Incidentally, the three most common chords used in popular music are the I, IV, and V chords (of the key the song is written in, not necessarily D-major). This hymn is not an isolated example by any means.

The deficiency of much modern worship/praise music does not primarily lie in the fact that the harmony is basically simple. Simple can be incredibly beautiful and effective. But simple should not mistaken for simplistic, especially when it comes to the lyrical content of worship music.

Something to think about before leveling the "3-chord ditty" criticism...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fingerstyle on a Stratocaster

I have been playing around with fingerstyle on my electric guitars lately and this is a piece I wrote as a result of that experimentation. It is still in somewhat rough form and I'll probably expand/change it over time...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My Cry Ascends

Back in my homeschool high school years I became familiar with the name Greg Wilbur through George Grant's "Gileskirk" curriculum. Occasionally Greg, who also teaches at Franklin Classical School, would lecture when Dr. Grant was away. I also read his biography of Bach (recommended, by the way). I did not know until recently that he also serves as the Director of Music at Parish Presbyterian Church in the Franklin, TN area. Over the past few years he has written or adapted tunes and texts to various psalms and hymns of bygone eras for congregational use at Parish. 16 of these psalms and hymns have been compiled into a CD that was just published by Ligonier Ministries, titled "My Cry Ascends". On the CD artists including Michael Card, Nathan Clark George, Wes King, and Steve Green perform the arrangements beautifully. I highly recommend purchasing the CD as excellent listening material, and I have also really enjoyed singing them at home and with others in small gatherings. Perhaps eventually some of these settings will be used in the worship at WPC...

Here are some links:

To purchase the CD from Ligonier, go HERE. (mp3s available soon)

To purchase the CD from Nathan Clark George's store, go HERE. (cheaper shipping)

To download a free track from the CD, click HERE.

To purchase lead sheets, or read more about Greg and his work, go HERE.

On Greg's website, I would particularly commend to you the section on Musical Philosophy, a portion of which I will quote below:

I believe that beauty is an attribute of God and is therefore a theological issue.
I believe that beauty and excellence are objective and that the Bible provides the standard for what is beautiful and excellent.
I believe that since there is a biblical objective standard for what is beautiful and excellent that this should apply especially in areas of worship.
I believe that an understanding of beauty enables a greater understanding of the nature and character of God.
I believe that the arts are worldview incarnate.
I believe that goodness, truth, and beauty are Trinitarian concepts and that each element requires the relationship of the other two for complete understanding.
I believe that the saints need to know how to read music and how to sing for the sake of the worship of God.
I believe that we should know, respect, and utilize the arts of the past as we continue to create new art that is historically informed but also Biblically creative.
I believe that originality is not a Biblical notion.
I believe that we weaken our understanding of art when we try to apply a narrative structure on all works instead of trying to understand music as music, painting as painting, etc.
I believe Philippians 4:8 provides a Biblical pattern by which to critique our thoughts and actions as well as our affections.
I believe that the Church abdicated its rightful place as the leader of culture.
I believe that the Church no longer knows how to train and equip artists because we have adopted a secular view of the arts.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Peppino D'Agostino

Last night my wife and I had the opportunity to attend a concert by acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Peppino D'Agostino in Hillsboro, Oregon. I have been urged multiple times over the past few years to check out his music but had not seen him live until last night. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and I would recommend you check out his music as well. As a guitarist, I was inspired with new ideas and techniques I had not heard before. Below are some of the photos and video I captured from the concert. Enjoy!

(Photos and videos shot with a Canon 7D, 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 IS lens, Video: ISO 3200, 24p @ 1/40s, Photos: ISO 3200 @ 1/40s, 1/50s, and 1/100s)

If you are interested in such things, he was playing a Seagull Artist "Peppino" signature guitar, through an L.R. Baggs "Venue" DI box / EQ / tuner, Digitech Hardwire RV-7 reverb stompbox, into an AER Compact 60 acoustic amplifier. He was also mic'd with a Shure SM81 into the house PA system for a very full, bright sound.

Here are the videos I captured:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Christians and Death Metal

These two very wise videos from Doug Wilson are helpful when dealing with questions related to music and Christian life and worship.

How to address death metal fans? - Conversations with Doug Wilson from Daniel Foucachon on Vimeo.

Ask Doug - Death Metal - a followup from Daniel Foucachon on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chris Thile plays Bach

On the mandolin. Really well. Here's a clip of him playing the Prelude from Bach's 3rd Partita for solo violin. Maybe it's just my appreciation for this guy's incredible skill getting the better of me but I think I almost like this piece on the mandolin better than on the original instrument!

Have a listen and see if you agree...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music and the subconscious

For a few years one of my favorite country CDs has been "Dream Big" by Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband. Their style is a blend of country and bluegrass and is really catchy.

The lyrics to one song on the album read:

Would you love me if I
Told you that I could not
Hold you closer tonight
To my heart it just might
Break me, make me fall down
Trip me up and hit ground
And I don't want to be there
And I don't want to be but I feel

A new emotion
A deep devotion
And a notion
That I will find you
And I might
Fall again

Would you stay if you knew
That I would only leave you
Sad enough and lonely
And I'd think of you only
In my dreams we would walk
And in my dreams we would talk
Hand in hand together
Hand in hand and I feel

A new emotion
A deep devotion
And a notion
That I will find you
And I might
Fall again

I don't want to see the news
I don't want to feel the rain
Falling on my face again
I don't want to see your face
On a billboard store
Don't want to grow old in this place no more

Would you think me crazy
Would you laugh forever
And in my arms you would be
And in your eyes I could see
All the stars up at night
And I am hoping you might
I swear I've seen your eyes before
I swear I've seen your eyes
And I feel

A new emotion
A deep devotion
And a notion
That I will find you
And I might
Fall again

It never really struck me until today that, although relatively harmless, these lyrics are a perfect musical embodiment of what Voddie Baucham calls "the Greco-Roman myth of romantic love". The prevailing notion of love today represents love as a feeling or emotion that we have little or no control over. A lot could be said about this but that's not the goal of my post.

Music is powerful in ways we often don't realize or are unwilling to admit. Music instructs us and shapes our worldview subconsciously just as much as it does with our conscious approval. We have to acknowledge this when we choose what sounds and words we fill our minds with or we have no protection against being swept away by the ideas innate in the music. The sounds we choose to hear influence our beliefs about beauty. In fact, our choice of musical styles really betrays our true beliefs about beauty and harmony regardless of what we profess. The words we fill our minds with influence how we view truth, reality, relationship, sexuality, priorities, profanity, and the list goes on.

Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:33 "Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals."

We need to be honest about music's ability to influence us. How many young Christian men would not walk the streets with gansters but hang out all the time with gangster rap? How many young Christian women profess purity of heart and action but regularly consume pop music that at best plays fast and loose with God's perfect design for sexuality and at worst instructs them in the ways of whoredom and other perversions?

I don't mean to overstate the case by way of exaggeration but the sorry state of youth and adults in the modern evangelical church can't be divorced from the contents of their iPods. Let's not deceive ourselves with regards to the power of music to shape our subconscious and conscious beliefs, the thoughts that fill our minds, and ultimately the way we live our lives.

Instead let's aim for the Scriptural mark of taking every thought captive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and refrain from all forms of evil whether in action, word, appetite, or thought.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Valse Irritation d'apr├Ęs Nokia

Picked this up over at Marc-Andre Hamelin's interpretive performance of the Nokia ringtone. Reminds me a lot of Chopin, with a little Schumann and maybe some Brahms thrown into the mix.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some clarification

As usual, my previous post raised some points that I could/should have expanded on in the original.

"Should Christians limit themselves to producing and enjoying music which is explicitly Christian in content?"

My answer to that question is yes, and no.

Key to the discussion is to remember that all good gifts come from the Father. Things like food, strong drink, music, and art are all blessings that are in a sense inherently "Christian" by virtue of their origin. Those who know me know I am a beer aficionado. I do not see beer as a drink which must be redeemed or sanctified by some outward designation Putting a label with a fish or a cross on the bottle would not redeem the beer. Since I believe beer (or wine) is a gift from God, the enjoyment of it in moderation with a heart of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good gifts is enough to redeem it for His glory.

In the same way, love, food, friends, and all of creation are "Christian" subjects. This is the "no" part of my answer. Most times the question above is asked, what is being referred to by "Christian" is more narrow than the definition I offered above. Christ, redemption, God's law, for example. But when we remember that the work of Christ in creation and redempion touches every area of life we are then free to rejoice in all these gifts that only belivers can truly enjoy, free from the perversion of the world. I believe this can and should result in Christians doing art and music that involves the mundane and earthly blessings we enjoy during our pilgrim state. Christians should be writing the best love songs, the best symphonies, the best plays etc. This may or may not involve specific references to Christ and His work. It may involve music that is written by Christians, or not.

I often find music written by pagans that grasps and extols the beauty of family life more edifying than weak-minded, mealy-mouthed, veiled references to some gal's boyfriend who happens to be named Jesus.

What needs to be avoided is the music that places anything in the place of God, promotes a perversion of any of His gifts, or contradicts the truth of His Word. We must keep our eyes open because these problems permeate our culture in every sphere including the modern Church.

I'm sure this raises more questions than it answers but hopefuly it provides some food for thought...