Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? PART VI

Have you ever stopped to wonder, "Why music?" Why do we like it so much? For me it is a kind of out-of-body or existential question. It is such a personal and profound question that it seems like I'm really asking myself why I like to eat food or sleep. We might run the gambit and offer some theological/philosophical reflections on why music is so essential, but ultimately I believe music just is.

The better question--a question that is still difficult--is what kind of music is best to listen to. Most of us stop to consider what kind of food is best to eat, and likewise we need to think clearly about our taking in of music. The assumption that I have been working with is that not all music is created equally and that music is not benign. Making a decision for or against a particular kind of music can be as much an ethical question as it is an aesthetic question. I say "can be" because there is much to be qualified about the ethics of art. For example, Hitler loved both Wagner and Beethoven. While I could live comfortably in a world without Wagner, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the tune that gave Nazis a German sense of spirituality and strength for battle. Incidentally, it is also the tune of "Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee," a song still loved by the church today. The difficulty in stating that music is ethical is that we might then try to systematically differentiate between right and wrong, good and evil music. This in practice is a very delicate task and ultimately a waste of time.

While music is not benign, it is also complex. It is possible to identify certain behaviors as wrong and to write laws against them because certain behaviors are concrete or exact. Certain behaviors leave little or no room for interpretation. Unlawful behaviors are those specific behaviors that our society agrees are wrong. However, music on the other hand leaves us with large territory for interpretation. As soon as you find something dark or heavy or confused in a song, you might also be able to find something true or good or right--something worth redeeming. It is the complexity of music that has led many to surrender it along with all art forms up to the realm of the subjective: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But it is not! Beauty is not in my eye or yours. Beauty does not come from humans. Beauty comes from the One who is Beautiful, the One who created "all things bright and beautiful." Beauty is made and defined by God. And here is my most important point: arguing that beauty is objective does not have to turn us into the Stasi. I am not calling for a mass book burning or a purging of all mp3s from hard drives.

Instead of starting heavy handed from the outside--or top down, instead of chasing down every example of wrong music, we start from the inside out. Again, it is a question of formation. If we become more like Christ, if we put on the mind of Christ, if we walk in the Spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness, then our aesthetic tastes will be shaped into making ethical choices that reflect the beauty and goodness of God.

Below I've outlined what I call "Full Gospel Worship." Our worship should cover all of the eight expressions listed. Some OT scholars identify some 20-30 different types of worship expressions found in the Psalms. I've narrowed it down to eight for the sake of simplicity. You will notice that "Full Gospel" does not mean trite, simplistic, sentimental or idealistic. My understanding of "Full Gospel" arises from Fredrick Beuchner's The Gospel As Comedy, Tragedy and Fairytale where he explains, "the Gospel is bad news before it is good news." A theologically sound definition of beauty then, must contend with the ugliness, horror and tragedy of our existence.

You may be wondering, "What about music that is not strictly 'worship' music?" I've intentionally tried to not create a discussion about worship music over and against the rest of music because in daily practice there is and should be necessary blurring of the line that seemingly separates worship music since all of life is worship. The eight expressions below can and should be expressed in all the music we listen to. Another way to consider it would be to assume that if we properly form our worship music, it will then properly form the way we engage all other art forms. Form the heart and the mind and from it goodness will flow.

  • Thanksgiving/Celebration:  The God of provision and abundance. The faithfulness of God. The God of Salvation and hope.
*Psalm 47:5-7 God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.

  • Exaltation: The God who reigns above. The transcendent God. All powerful. The God above all other Gods.
*Psalm 27:1,2 “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes they shall stumble and fall.”

  • Adoration: the God who reveals himself. God who is immanent. God who is close in Jesus.
*Psalm 42:1,2 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

  • Confession: the God who is holy, righteous, judge…a look inward at what is wrong, broken, confused.
*Psalm 51:1,2 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

  • Lamentation: a complaint, a look outward at “the state of things” to groan or ache for what is wrong to be made right
*Psalm 22:1,2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest.
  • Supplication: prayers to the God who is near, tends to be a prayer for our “daily bread.”
*Psalm 31:14-17 But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God." 15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me. 16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. 17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave.
  • Intercession: prayers to the God who is above, for God to act on a large scale, for God to move with power.
*Psalm 79:5-7 How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.

  • Remembrance: rehearsing the works of God, a regular act of attending to God’s faithfulness.
*Psalm 111:2-4 Great are the works of the Lord studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Couple Books


Quick college students....before you break is over, go get you hands on Strength in What Remains, the newest book by Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy Kidder. Susanna and I discovered Kidder when our book group in Oklahoma read his Mountains Beyond Mountains, another MUST READ about the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer. This new book is a real page turner. See the description of the book here. Sus got this for me for Christmas. We've been reading to each other while driving from each of our holiday spots and are now almost half way through it.


I've had an interest in the 20th century ever since I read The Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde. In that book Lewis McAdams surveys the art movements of everything from Charlie Parker to Bob Dylan to Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol. Some said that while Washington D.C. may have been the capital of the United States, but New York was the capital of the world--at least in the first half of the 20th century. So much shifted in the world during this century and Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own traces how four people felt and responded to those changes: Dorthy Day, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor. The book's title comes from a short story of the same name by O'Connor which you can read here. Not only are these very important authors worth their own attention, but Elie manages to bring them together into a deep conversation about who and what America has become and how we as Christians should interpret the life of Christ into our contemporary circumstances.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wire, We Finished Season Five Last Night

It happened with Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, the British Office and the most short lived Pushing Daisies, and it happened again last night for Susanna and me with The Wire. Yes, yes, yes...all good things must come to an end.

The Wire has been one of the most important things I've ever watched of film, TV whether documentary or fiction. It is sad that is is over, but this is one series that I would start over from the beginning today if I had the discs. So, I have the second viewing to look forward to.

Instead of trying to say anything that could do the series justice, I'll just point out that it is true, there is television worth watching these days. And I'll also quote David Simon, the series creator, from his own thoughts in his season finale letter:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Another book excerpt/ pre-order/ Sentimentalism defined

If you are so inclined, THE book can be pre-ordered here.

And David recently posted another excerpt this time from Jeremy Begbie. Begbie also addresses the issue of sentimentality in Christian art in another anthology:  The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin. The excellent essay is titled, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts.” The gist of the essay is that sentimentality is un-earned emotion or emotionalism when emotion is an end in itself. Begbie identifies three problems with it:

  1. misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil.
  2. is emotionally self-indulgent.
  3. it fails to take appropriate action.
I really appreciate his use of a quote from Milan Kundera:
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: 'how nice to see children running on the grass!' The second tear says: 'How nice to be moved, together with all mankind by children running on the grass!' It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” 
These thoughts can go a long way in serving the discussion on Christian music that I'm developing here on this blog.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part V

Alright. My hiatus from my more favorite music is over. As I write this, I’m listening to Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to Queen Mary,” and yeah, its “doing it” for me. Other interesting news: I don’t know if anyone noticed that John Michael Talbot posted a comment on the first of these “What Music Feeds Your Soul” posts. I looked around on the net and he does have a facebook account and actively writes blogs himself. So, there is reason to believe it was really him. Pretty cool. I’m just trying to figure out how he found my blog. Hmm…?

Oh, and speaking of news, Susanna is now 18 weeks pregnant. I can honestly agree that she is officially showing. I felt the baby night before last. It was two slight taps.

Continuing the discussion on what Christian music could become….

Here is a tough question that arises regularly in the course I teach, and it’s also something the worship team struggles with too: when does worship music become manipulative? My students, rightfully so, are very aware of the power they wield in creating a mood. Speed up the tempo, turn up the volume and get people excited, or slow things down and work a ballad for a somber, reflective state. Either way it is obvious that music can influence us by shifting our moods. Marketing specialist know this. Moviemakers know this. Party throwers know this. So, what is the difference between a worship leader and the rest?

Here I affirm once more the importance of the biblical and theological training of the leader. He/she needs the training to be able to discern when and how to use the power of music, to be able to identify what biblically sound music is. It is this kind of discernment that motivates me to keep writing out these thoughts. I want to imagine a kind of Christian worship that does not rely on the same over worn, and in effect, sentimentalized and manipulative instrumentation and arrangements.

Remember the road trip experience with the radio, how you can tell while flipping through radio stations which is the Christian music even before listening to the lyrics? I was in a studio in Dallas a few years ago watching a friend record the vocals of a popular Christian artist you have most likely heard of (but who I will not name here). The final tracks were sent off in the middle of the night to Nashville. In the morning the song came back fully mixed and ready for radio release as a single of the artist’s forthcoming full-length release. The mixing engineer’s compliment to my friend, the tracking engineer, was “your tracks have got that Nashville sound!” Of course, I was happy for my friend, a very talented studio engineer and producer, yet the gadfly in me begs the question: why is “the Nashville sound” the standard of success? The studio becomes a place that does, it seems, work hard to manipulate a song so that it matches the Nashville radio sound. So yes, I sympathize with what my students fear about being manipulative, that music be forced into what is predictably ‘feel good.’

Yet, to play the devil’s advocate, much of what worship should offer a Christian is a definite sense of the assurance of their faith. We should be nurturing peace and hope. What is the difference then between ‘feel good’ music and the appropriate sound of hope and joy? How does the worship leader acquire the ability to tell the difference between the two?

Let me pose the question in a different way. Instead of thinking of the power of music as manipulative, why not think of music’s power as formative? Formative is a less pejorative, careful word. Yes, the leader does use the powers of music to influence, yet in the proper, loving and discerning hands the affect of music can be appropriately formative. The question that I want my students to ask is how do we properly use the powers of music to form Christians in the faith?

C.S. Lewis has a chapter in Mere Christianity titled “Let’s Pretend” that really helps us get at the difference between manipulation and formation. He recounts two fables. The second one reads like this:
The other story is about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for years. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.

This is in sum what I mean by formative.

I’ve heard Christians say that they will not sing the lyric of a song that they are not genuinely convicted to profess or even feel. The assumption is that God is more pleased with the genuine state of their hearts instead of empty repetition of religious words that do not “connect” with their present self. The problem with this is circular in its reasoning: when will such a person be genuinely in a condition then to profess the true words of faith? What will inspire the worshiper into such a space? We are in trouble as a church when faithfulness begins with our own personal, sincere and genuine condition.

Lewis in essence is saying that worship is a practice of pretending. Is this hypocrisy? No, not at all. When we as Lewis says are “dressing up as Christ” in worship, when we move beyond our current, personal emotional state to worship God in faith, we are fundamentally practicing that which we truly are. We are throwing off the old self and literally putting on the new.

Music then aids us in this work of helping the Christian to “dress up” and play the part of the Christian. Yes it is manipulative, or better, it is formative to create an environment that can stimulate the senses and awaken the worshipper to their true identity in Christ within the fellowship of the saints.

My concern is that what is most commonly offered in Christian worship music is not capable of nurturing a full enough diet in worship. If anything it is not formative enough. It’s too narrow and is not inspiring the proper fullness of Christian worship.

In the next post I’ll outline what that fullness should look like by considering the Psalms as our model, a map for the full breadth of Christian worship.

I’ll leave this post with a bit more from Lewis for you to chew on:
You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into a reality. This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result; if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one. There are lots of things which your conscience might not call definitely wrong (specially things in your mind) but which you will see at once you cannot go on doing if you are seriously trying to be like Christ. For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules. And the odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping rules, in another way it is far easier.

The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to 'inject' His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Meditation on Isaiah 9

Some people ask for this around Christmas time. I thought I'd already posted it on this blog somewhere. Forgive me if this is a double post. I believe this was first written in 2001 for a service at Bridgeway Church. For those who are curious, I was reading Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy when this was written.

If you want some other thoughtful reflections on advent check out my friend Dustin Ragland's several entries here www.okcherbivore.blogspot.com/. He is definition of gentle giant with insight and creativity seeping out each pore (if that isn't too gross of an image).

Meditation on Isaiah 9

Unto us a child is born,
unto all of us.
Unto the widow,
unto the homeless,
the addict,
the AIDS patient.

Unto us the football captain
and the drag queen.
Unto us the politician,
the factory blue collar,
us the single mother,
the crack baby,
and unto us the affluent suburbanite.

Unto us the Goth,
the hippie,
the rocker,
the alternative and underground.
Unto us in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue
and unto all of us in between.
Unto us in the gutters of Calcutta,
unto the Muslim,
and the Jew,
the Buddhist,
the Krishna and the Hindu.
Unto us the fatherless.
Unto the heavenly fatherless.

For unto us a child is born
a son is given
and a secret revolution begun.
This is what the prophets had been preparing for.
They said his name would be,
“Most Beautiful Wisdom,”
“the Highest of Heaven’s Secrets.”

His name would be,
“the God who continually bends over backwards for you,”
“the God who gets down on his hands and knees,”
“the God who would become silly and mis-understood,”
“the God who would be mocked- - the God whose name
would be taken in vain.”

He would be called
“the God of underdogs,”

“the God of the powerless and unspiritual,”

“the God of those who cannot pray or fast.”

And there would be no end to him and his
underdog weaklings or their secret.
There would be no end even
while the nations continue to rage on.
Even as ethnos rises against ethnos,
even as valleys are filled with dead bones
and rivers run with blood.
Even as violence runs through our streets
and schools and hearts
covering us like a thick fog.

Even in this dark land of weak people
the God who bends over backwards
will shine forth like a great light
as the dawning of a new day
letting his secret spread forth with healing and joy.

Drop the mirror and let it shatter
Crush the hourglass and stop the clocks ticking.
Stand still.
Hold your breath.
your wildest dreams.
Sell everything and buy the farm.
Come with me, cover your eyes and hold out your hands.
Stop your weeping,
stop your groans,
the fast is over.
Let the celebration begin
the father has come.
He has sent his son
Unto us He has been born,
even unto us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Warm Fuzzy Christmas

We finished our final Gathering for the semester last night. Campus ministry is a huge blur. It is hard for me to really believe we are done. I do have a bit of grading to do and I will be meeting with students all week, hopefully. Paul and I will continue to tinker away on this next year's recordings. We're going to mix and edit in Pro Tools instead of Digital Performer this year. So, there is a bit of a learning curve there. There is the calendar or next semester to start working on too. So, there is still work, but it's just not all crammed in with planning and leading four services a week.

On Friday each member of the staff gave a brief testimony of what we are thankful for. We framed the service as a live Christmas card and even gave a student a camera to take our picture.

Here are a few that Kate took from the stage of the gathered students:

It was a good week. I used to be so frustrated with the challenge of coming up with Christmas music so suddenly at the end of the semester, but these last two weeks were really enjoyable. A large part of the joy was changing the instrumentation for a few services: four girls singing, a real piano, drums light (kick, snare, hat played w/ brushes), vibes and a full concert glockenspiel, two acoustics, an electric mostly playing ambient swells, two violins, a cello and an upright bass. I'm a dork for not getting a photo of that group last night. On Monday I had a student organ major lead two carols with the chapel choir. Wednesday was the strings et al. Friday was standard rock core, and then last night was the strings based team again.

After much banging of the head and gnashing of the teeth, I've finally found some inspiration to keep working on the Ordinary Neighbors recordings. Some of my fears have settled. I've accepted my limitations as a mixing engineer and started hearingthe things I'm good at instead of the things I'm bad at. I've got the 'studio' set up again in the guest room and am pretty excited about working intensively on these old songs...rediscovering them. After working for the last 3+ years to get the school to give me the money to make major improvements on the Dimnent studio, the irony is that it is hard to get good extended time in there with all the others who want to use the space too. So this is where I'm working now:

I'll have to post some pics of the new mix room at Dimnent so that you can see the contrast--why this is not quite as ideal. One thing I am excited about is this:

It is a two track tape machine my grand poppa used for years with his music students. I've got a box of tapes of him instructing his students. The deck barely works, but it's got this nice sound of another age with all the crackles and hiss. Even better, I can hear poppa speaking. I'll be using samples on different songs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part IV

Truth be told, I do want to play a bit of the blame game—not to blame any particular people, but to blame a shifting within our culture further and further toward absurdity, an “idiot culture” as I’ve quoted Carl Bernstien before. It is a collective guilt that I will own myself. I hope I can write these thoughts without self-righteousness and self-deception. I want to live better, more deliberately and thoughtfully, but I’ve got my own kitsch sentimentalities. Yet, in playing the blame game, when identifying what is lacking in Christian music, we must realize such failures are part and parcel to what is lacking in our American culture at large. If the American church is to blame for anything, it is that we have not nurtured a substantial enough resistance to the banalities of American popular culture. But it isn’t quite that cut and dried. Culture making is tedious and complex and it takes time.

Remember how a frog gets boiled? You turn the flame up slowly, so slowly that the frog isn’t able to understand what is happening until it is too late to jump out of the kettle. This is the gist of what has happened to church music in America. Really sincere intentions to engage our culture are now a decade later threatening the vitality of our worship life.

Why is it that contemporary worship leaders need theological and biblical formation? Without access to such wisdom we will most assuredly find ourselves with the frog in a hot kettle. The worship leader needs to hone her discernment, to possess a kind of prophetic sensibility to be able to detect and discern trouble. As the Apostle Paul admonished the church at Ephesus: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and from and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” And likewise we shouldn’t be pushed to and fro by the latest trends in culture and technology.

A blog posted by Marty Nystrom on the CCLI website outlines the top ten common characteristics of the top ten contemporary worship songs.

1.    Universal Theme
2.    Lyric Consistency
3.    Prosody
4.    Lyric Originality
5.    Form
6.    Musical Interest
7.    Usability
8.    A Well Placed Title
9.    Balance of Repetition and New Ideas
10.    Effectiveness in Worship

If you read through the explanation of these traits, nothing is said about biblical or theological precision, clarity or depth. In fact Nystrom states, “A lyric should not require an in-depth Bible study before it can be appreciated.”

Appreciated? Yes, if I am concerned about writing a song or leading a song that registers in the top ten of a CCLI’s most popular songs—if I’m concerned about writing a popular song in the first place—then I will be concerned about what people appreciate in a song. And a good pastor does concern him/herself with what people can appreciate. However, it is not where our concerns should begin or even end.

My reaction is not against those songs specifically. I’ve led and would be willing to continue to lead some of these top songs. Nystrom’s own, most well known song, “As the Deer,” is a classic. My concern is that he doesn’t offer any assessment of the theology of the songs. There is no question about how a song can teach and spiritually form a Christian. He claims, “the songs are effective in helping worshipers exalt Jesus.” Yet, there is so much that can be said about Jesus. It is naïve to think that just because a song names “Jesus” or claims to draw attention to him that the song is necessarily saying the right things about Jesus. Nystrom goes on to say, “these songs have been proven to incite worship in the hearts of people around the globe.” Well and good, but what about the minds of people around the globe?

Is it enough to recruit young, talented, charismatic and good-hearted people to become the worship leaders of our churches? We value seminary training for preachers. Why not for our musicians?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part III

I need to qualify what I mean by changing Christian music. I have no grandiose notions. I’m one of the least ambitious people I know. It is a matter of remaining optimistically engaged in the conversation. And this is a hard conversation to stay attentive to. I’ve encountered Christians who make it fashionable to be disgruntled with contemporary worship music. It is a posture best summarized by Lauren Winner’s reference to those “Jesus is my boyfriend love songs.” There is a cross section of the church that is put off and even downright obstinate towards much of the music I make. I can sympathize with their concerns and criticisms better than they know. When I say that I want to be a part of the change, I mean that I don’t want to hide behind academia and write abstract theories. I’m not an idealist—more accurately, while I do have ideals, I can’t afford to be an idealist in the context of ministry practice. This is what Gordon Fee has called a “marketplace theology.” Much of what I learn is in the context of reading and writing, yes, but it's a kind of learning that has traction in the context of real ministry practice. It is in this space where all my best ideas are pressed into a dependence upon the ministry of the Spirit.

An aside: this is a tough thing for college students to appreciate. College is a place to gather and test the best of ideas. We train students how to tear ideas apart, and we train them to be proud of themselves in the process. Learning should be delightful, but what is our delight found in? The muscle of our brains or the joy of discovery? Learning is as susceptible to haughtiness as any playground kid trying to prove whose got the biggest stick—perhaps even more so. It is fashionable to be sarcastic and cynical, to bully and intimidate. Yet cynicism and pride are not very helpful when putting your gifts in the service of God. You can build a kingdom with those attributes, but not God’s kingdom.

If you want to change something, you’ll need to love it first. You can’t change anything from a posture of condescension. You have to get on your hands and knees and dive into the grey matter and pray, pray, pray.

Back on topic…

One of the most poignant sections of the conversation about Christian music is staged in the arena of the recording studio. More broadly, by now you can gather that I am concerned about any issue that might involve technology used in the production of God’s worship. I already alluded to the inherent cult of personality when a worship leader’s face is placed as the center of attention on large projection screens. Well, there are hundreds of other technological decisions that are made even before a worship leader finds him or herself on such a large stage, and many of these decisions are made in the context of the recording process. The studio is a place where much of an artist’s identifying sound is clarified and established. My point is this: technology is not neutral nor is it invisible. Each technological device and decision has the power to affect the spirit and the meaning of a worship service or a specific worship song for the good or for the bad. And for those of us who don't have songs to record, it is these recordings and productions along with a myriad of technological decisions that serve as models for the rest of us. The arrangement and production of these commercial recordings made in Nashville or wherever become defacto our model of the way our worship should sound.

“That I May Please You” was the first song I contributed to Generation Productions’ “Prayers & Worship Volume 1.” It was written in 1998, a year after graduating from college when I had enough money to buy my first computer and where I discovered the temptations of the Internet for the first time.

I deserve much worse than this,
I have trampled underfoot
Your Spirit and you blood.
Wash my body in your Word
And cleanse my consciousness
To love your righteousness
And hate all evil.

Questions about tempo, dynamics, instrumentation all were made in roughly a few hours of studio time with hired studio musicians. The musicians knew nothing of the core meaning of the song and so the result of that session sounded and felt foreign conveying an emotion that couldn't support the lament and repentance of the text.

I really shouldn’t complain. I am still very grateful for the opportunity. Charlie generously paid for everything. It was my first shot at recording—for free. He sold copies of the CDs to me and the other contributors at cost so that we could in turn make a profit and thus fund our own full-length recordings. Charlie has been one of the most helpful friends in my growth in music ministry. Yet, during that same year Don and Lori Chaffer with Ben and Robin Pasley and Brandon and Christina Graves had made the first of the Enter the Worship Circle records, just a few microphones, some guitars and hand drums in a cabin. Time to linger, to make music out of fellowship—a very different kind of recording that I could help but be jealous of. I’ve been trying to learn how to make my own records ever since.

When an artist decides to make a record, a very fundamental question needs to be asked about how the recording will be made. How spontaneous or how live can and should this music be documented? Said another way: to what extent does the recording studio become a part of the record itself? In the early days tape machines had only a few tracks to record on. A four track recorder was at one time a rather sophisticated device. Everything was tracked live. One track for a lead vocalist perhaps, and three other tracks recorded all the rest of the musicians in groups, a mic for drums, a mic for horns etc. A song, even a song on the radio, was a document of a single live event. With the advent of 24 track tape machines and now digital recording devices, recordings are an assembly of many different creative moments assembled together by a mixing engineer over time to resemble a whole unified musical experience.

My assumption is that there are many artists out there who are brilliant and worth listening to, yet they do not have the right access to the kind of recording equipment and expertise necessary to document their music and make it enjoyable to listen to. Again, we can’t be idealistic here either. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing between recording methods. I’m not interested in digital versus analog or live verses studio debates in the abstract. The question is what is best for each artist, each record, each song? There are as many different kinds of music as there are human emotions. Further, there are just about as many different ways to record a song as there are kinds of music. My main concern is the ubiquity a very specific, very limiting, formulaic approach to creating Christian music that is aimed primarily at satisfying predictable market targets. Good music or good art in general is at its best when it retains the mystery of exploration and discovery and defies predictability. Popular music, both Christian and what is on top 40 charts in the past decade have become trapped in a box. Even more tragic, worship music, specifically what is often called ‘Praise and Worship’ has become a particular genre that possesses its own sound, its own sonic signature and arrangement patterns.

You and I both know the experience of driving cross-country, flipping through the radio stations. You hear the sound of the music and know before any lyrics are sung that it is contemporary Christian music. This is what twists my stomach in knots.

Yet, while I am arguing for artistic integrity and freedom in the recording studio, my further concern is seemingly counter-intuitive: God focused music should be constrained to a standard of biblical and theological maturity. This is not just a kind of mature development of lyrics alone, but a kind of wisdom about the music as well. In my next post I want to make the argument that Christian artists should study theology and more specifically that worship leaders should seriously consider ministry training. In the long run such study and preparation should, if pursued properly, be more freeing for the artist rather than confining.