Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Music Feeds Your Soul? VIII

Interview on Hope Chapel CD 2009-1010 "Here is Mercy"

With the impending release of the Hope College Worship 09-10 recording, I thought it might be good to get some publicity going—you know fire up the marketing machine and make sure the word gets out. We are going to be posting the recording on iTunes for the very first time, after all. I’ve managed to arrange an interview to be published in hopes that I might get some hype brewing.

Sadly, the interview will only be published here on this blog, and further, the only interviewer I could find on short notice is me.

Nevertheless, I’ve been greatly anticipating this interview--have been thinking about it for days. The butterflies are all a flutter. I’m experiencing the expected shortness of breath. What if I say something stupid and don’t articulate myself well? And then there is the double pressure of fearing that I might embarrass myself as the interviewer and ask a stupid question as well.

Either way, hopefully this little exchange contributes to some further thoughts on what music feeds our souls.

JCB: Thanks for joining me for this interview on such short notice.

JB: No, no, thanks goes to you for helping us get the word out to Hope College students about this recording.

JCB: You mention Hope College students. Is this a recording just for them, or can people off campus get copies?

JB: We print 1500 copies. The CDs will be available at the Keppel house on March 15 and also at the Hope bookstore. We are also trying out iTuens for the first time, but in terms of the main reason we go to such great lengths to make a record every year, yes I’d say it is the students who are the main focus of our energies…well, other than God, of course, since it is a worship record. We don’t have any expectation that these recordings are going to make us famous or anything.

JCB: Honestly? You don’t have any hope that these songs will be heard by people off campus?

JB: No, well, uh…there needs to be a clear understanding of what music is for and why it is that we should make recordings in the first place. Fundamentally I believe music is a gift from God that helps us communicate back to him and also with other people in ways that prose discourse cannot facilitate. We make music because we are human. God made us to make music. The trouble is that music has become a big business in Western culture and we assume that if you make a CD then you must have some ambition to become something special, someone famous...or at least someone that is noticed at some sort of significant level of recognition. So, I think it is kinda weird for Christians to make records these days. It can so quickly become an avenue for self-promotion when what we are called to is God promotion or Jesus promotion.

JCB: In listening through the CD, I realized that you actually sing very little on this year’s record. Was that a conscious decision?

JB: Yeah, I’m glad you noticed that. I guess it may be no big deal to other people, but actually, no, it wasn’t a conscious decision to sing less on this record. This is my fourth year leading at Hope College. All the students who lead with me are students I’ve recruited. It’s been four years of learning mostly how to identify and release their gifts. I’m surprisingly a shy person. I really don’t have an internal urge to be in front of people. I love leading worship and facilitating opportunities for people to pursue God. It is a gift to be in the middle of that kind of communal sharing with each other and with God, but what really excites me is identifying gifted persons and helping them learn how to use those gifts. So, me not singing much on this CD was just what happened. Most of these students are better at something than me, and it just so happened that they did a better job at leading each particular song than I would have. Oh, and I also think that after doing three other CDs, maybe I’ve grown bored with hearing myself so much.

JCB: The title track of the CD is “Here is Mercy,” is  a song you wrote. How do you decide when to put your own songs on the CD and how did you decide to title the whole CD after your own song?

JB: Great question Josh. Again, I don’t want to belabor this point, but I really try to shun self-promotion. The main reason why my song became the title of the CD is because we have to come up with a title really quickly in order to get our CD design/layout artist, Chris Cox, something to work with. Honestly, “Here is Mercy” just seemed like an easy fit and it felt and sounded better than the others I was considering. Further, if I title the disc after another song by another artist that we are already licensing, then legally we have to pay them even more to use their title. At a gut level though, honestly, “Here is Mercy,” the song and its arrangement is something special to me. So, maybe at some gut level I felt safe titling the recording by that song because at a gut level I have peace with that song.

JCB: So you don’t have peace with other songs on the recording?

JB: I was afraid this might come up. Yeah, honestly, not all the songs on the CD are my favorite songs in the world. Well, know that I think of it, I do have peace about pretty much the whole of this particular CD.

JCB: But not some of the songs that have made CDs in the past?

JB: Honestly, yes, there are songs on previous records that weren’t my favorites.

JCB: So then why are they on the recording?

JB: I don’t pick any of the songs we sing in chapel because they are my personal favorites. I try to find music that will serve the students.

JCB: What does that mean? How do you know what will serve the students?

JB: It isn’t that I don't think about the faculty and staff who participate, but the students are my main focus. I’m still trying to figure out how to qualify or explain the parameters I use in song selection. Sometimes decisions on songs are made with very concrete, definitive reasons and sometimes we pick songs because it just feels right—we feel led to the song. Again, it is not the kind of leading that has to do with my musical preference. I’m sure my musical taste is part of a filter, but ultimately the questions I’m always asking are: who are these people? Who are these students? What are they learning? How is God speaking to them now? How does God’s specific purposes for our community relate and compare God’s work in the church throughout all time and to the greater truth of Christianity? I have to balance an immediate perspective with an historical perspective. If I only pick the hottest, juiciest rock worship songs of today then we miss out on the powerful and formative language of hymns. If we only do hymns, we miss out on the chance to contextualize our worship to a sound that makes sense to our musical sensibilities today. Anybody who has trouble with this needs to study church history and see how all of our greatest hymn writers were musically and theologically innovative while still being musically relevant to their day and age—not a kind of hackneyed competition with popular culture. I don’t want to compete with pop culture. That is impossible. Yet, I do want to respond to it, to subvert it and redeem it.

JCB: You just said something about picking song based on your feelings? Is that safe for a pastor…to lead based on feelings?

JB: Of course not. Worship isn’t about creating feelings. I’m trying to talk about that personal intuition that helps me hear God’s voice. I can trust this openness to God’s leading partially because I am someone who has been formed by the Scriptures. The Bible constrains the way I understand that God works and leads me. Further, I regularly present my decisions to the campus ministry staff and to my student leaders to see if what I’m considering makes sense to them. They know me well enough to help me distinguish between God’s voice and my own. I think we are getting off topic here though. How bout some more questions about the CD?

JCB: “All Hail Christ” is another song you wrote. I’ve heard from some people that it is a hard song to sing. What are your thoughts on that?

JB: All the worship songs I write are an experiment in some manner. “All Hail Christ” is definitely an example of an experiment.

JCB: Can you elaborate on that a bit more?

JB: Well, first of all writing a contemporary song is a very difficult thing to do. The people who can put together top 40 pop songs are geniuses in some degree. Academic careers have been built around the study of the elements of popular music to identify what makes them popular. I remember hearing about some guy who created a computer program that would listen to a song and tell you if it had any potential as a market success based on this audio researcher’s study of the distinguishing marks of the great pop music of the last thirty years.  So, when I say my song writing is an experiment, I mean that I’m trying to respond different elements in rock music that I think can be redeemed and used to draw attention to God rather than the guitars and drums.

Further, I’ve studied hymns somewhat and I’m really interested in writing contemporary songs that are also a response to the greatest of hymns. Some people like Keith Getty and Stuart Townend and others have been described as ‘modern hymn writers.’ I think that is great music and a worthwhile endeavor. However, what I’m trying to do is take contemporary music seriously without watering down the lyrical content—the biblical and theological depth of the text. I read somewhere that that Charles Wesley’s hymns averaged two or three biblical allusions per line. I’m all for singing a chorus with some nice repetitive phrases that sink deep into our guts, but I’m more interested in trying to contribute something more rigorous to the development of contemporary Christian worship.

So, my song “Fairer” was based out of my meditation on “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Psalm 19.”  “Light of Jesus” was the result of my study of the Nicene Creed and the Gospel of John. “All Hail Christ” came out of my consideration of the great hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,” the single most published hymn in all of hymn publishing and also Charles Wesley’s “Rejoice the Lord is King.” “Here is Mercy” was a result of my reading of St. Augustine’s Confessions. He showed me that we can be theologically astute while still having warm, tender hearts all that the same time. None of these songs sound like hymns. Nor am I just trying to spice up an old hymn either. I really want these songs to sound contemporary. I don’t want them to sound like Praise and Worship music either, but that is a whole other conversation.

Now with “All Hail Christ,” my experiment was with vocal styling. I had a great discussion with Brad Richmond, choral instructor/director in the music department, a few years ago. He lamented the affect of electronic sound reinforcement on sacred music. In the past hymns were written to be sung with the full body, shoulders back, heads lifted, mouths open. You can’t sing “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” any other way than with your whole body. This seems to be a great loss, another example of how our Christian faith has less and less to do with our physical existence and more and more to do with our cerebral and emotional selves. So, if “All Hail Christ” is difficult to sing it is either because I overshot the experiment, or its because people today don’t know how to sing with their whole bodies. Maybe it's a matter of both.

JCB: I’m also aware that you were not the main mixing engineer this year. What led to the change? How has that affected the process this year.

JB: Its hard to not be in the central nerve of the post production of the CD, but ultimately it is a great thing for me personally to let go of. Paul Chamness has mixed the record for us this year. I still did a lot of editing and some mixing, but Paul carried the bulk of the weight. If you remember, I had a bilateral pulmonary embolism last Fall. That took away a good three almost four weeks of my semester. I couldn’t imagine disappearing into the studio that long this semester. And fortunately, Paul is much more qualified to mix the record than me anyway. It was an amazing gift that he gave us and me.

The record does sound better this year than ever, well of the records I’ve made these past four years. If there is anything that compromises the production quality of the records it is my insistence on riding the room mics up hotter in the mix than most mixers would like. It creates some raw ambient texture that isn’t as nice and polished as a pro, large distribution record might have. I find that ambient texture to be very meaningful. If we are going to be making these records from year to year, recording some of our own songs and re-recording other songs from other popular writers, then we need to put our own stamp on the recordings. They need to sound like us and feel like us. Again, back to the students, I want them to hear what our Dimnent chapel really sounds like and to remember God’s visitation in that place. So, if some think the record doesn’t sound as slick as some other worship records, that is because I don’t to sound like other worship records. It’s just us: a group of college students led by a hack of a musician (me) trying to trust Jesus for the worship life of a college campus.

Monday, February 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace on Worship...?

My father in law recently mentioned to Susanna that he had read David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon.  I barely know anything about David Foster Wallace. Wiki says he's been compared to Thomas Pynchon, but if you aren't a Lit major or a writer yourself, generally these are not authors that make it into table talk. So, we thought it was pretty cool that Susanna's dad was familiar with Foster Wallace, so suprised in fact that we hunted down the speech and found it in the library in a collection edited by David Eggers. I read it to Sus night before last. It has been troubling me ever since.

First, and I'm not saying this to suggest that I'm anywhere close the rank and file of a writer like Foster Wallace, but what really strikes me as eerie about the speech is that I have written something kinda similar myself. Specifically, he beat me to the punch with a description of the grocery store as a kind of domestic hell of tedious drudgery. Here is a snippet from Foster Wallace:
You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
In 2004 I was working on a set of essays that I had hoped to from into something publishable. Here is an excerpt of my attempt to describe the same kind of impatience in a grocery store (and yes, it does feel weird to quote myself):
If I am able, after becoming exhausted from gathering my items for purchase, after walking up so many long isles, after walking past so many strangers, after treating all these strangers like strangers, after standing in line next to these strangers, after glancing over the covers of several exhaustingly ridiculous magazines, after looking at chocolate, after convincing myself that the women on these magazine covers are really not real, after paying with a debit card, after grabbing my bags to leave, and if right at that moment when I don’t need anything else from him or her, if right then I make an awkward attempt at being human by forcing a smile with a really sincere “you have a nice day too” maybe I will somehow change the world.
I swear, I've never read David Foster Wallace before this. I've always wanted to. Thought I should, but his suicide in 2008 has kept me from following through. I have had my own history of depression, and--I'm not trying to be cute here--I don't need another Elliot Smith in my life right now.

I'm further spooked by Foster Wallace's commencement address because he seems to get so much right--to see so honestly and clearly--yet his ultimate conclusions are so flabby. He so appropriately speaks a sobering word about the reality of adult life, that much of life is not glamorous but is the challenge of enduring the daily grind, the monotony of our jobs and domestic chores, chores like grocery shopping. Our work is primarily a labor of perspective, of seeing properly. Either we can hate our trips to the grocery store or we can re-envision the encounter with a kind of humble, somewhat optimistic patience. Yet the life lesson he offers is offered sheepishly, almost on the sly. He is so keen to offer his insight, yet he is even more keen to not assert his perspective on the listener. He attempts to say so much, yet he's reluctant to say anything with more than a whimper of conviction.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to.
And I take it that he assumes that this kind of passive, sage voice is suppose to be admirable. This seems to be the voice of our age offering college graduates something that in sum goes like this: "here are some thoughts I've had about life and learning, but ultimately what I think doesn't matter dude...ultimately it's all up to you to figure it out for yourself."

Here is my final example of what spooks me about the Foster Wallace address: he stumbles upon some language that could come straight out of an evangelical sermon:
Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Foster Wallace's definition of truth is straight out of William James' pragmatism. He goes on to offer pluralistic disclaimers--that each of us can choose which spirituality or religion we prefer, but essentially he is saying that we become like the object of our worship whether it be money, our own bodies or our intellects. 

Christian wisdom teaches that the daily grind of our lives, the tedium and boredom of each day is fundamentally a result of the Fall. From the Genesis account, the strain and monotony of daily existence are a consequence of our rebellion. It is "by the sweat of your brow, you will earn your daily bread." Yes, we are called to re-envision each day, to redeem it from the grip of soul-sick repetition, but this isn't a task we have the power to accomplish on our own. The only God who can redeem the long hours of our days is the God who entered into time, lived under its curse and triumphed over time's greatest threat, death. It is the uniqueness of Christianity's incarnate, time bound, time redeeming God that gives me the courage to hold my convictions--with conviction.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Necessity of Fear

One of the convictions that motivates my concern for the arts and artists is the notion that the creative process itself is not something limited to artists. The creative process is the concern of any living, vibrant being. To be human is to be creative. Each of us make dozens—maybe even hundreds of creative decisions each day. Some decisions are small (how much toothpaste to squeeze onto your toothbrush, a decision of technique) and some are large (how to engage in and sustain a vibrant conversation with another person, decisions of love and trust). We decide what clothes to wear, how to style our hair, whether to walk to work or drive, what to eat for lunch, how to communicate with co-workers. All these decisions can to some extent contain a creative impulse that makes the difference between a boring and an interesting day, the difference between a vibrant and a banal life. It seems possible that someone might breathe, eat and sleep and yet be for all purposes dead to the creative life we have been designed to experience—to be a living dead person.

Many of us are stuck in this quagmire of living death because we are trapped by fear.

One of my goals is to demystify the creative process, to remove the intimidation so that anyone might take a good, close study of what artists do and glean some insight into their own creative decisions as a result—to look over the shoulder of a professional artist in order to understand our own creative journeys. The creative process for an artist is merely a condensed, focused and deliberate act of being human. If there were an ESPN-like network for the arts, I would have a cable subscription and be glued to the TV. Nothing is more thrilling to me than watching an artist in the studio, to watch something emerge out of raw materials, sweat, deliberation and time into something tangible—something for an audience to behold.

So, I encourage everyone, even if you’re not a songwriter or a musician to consider my following reflections.

I read an interview with Matt Berninger, singer of the National, last night. The interview is the most transparent account from the lips of a highly respected rocker that I’ve read. When I heard the National’s Boxer, it was one of the few times in my life that I could tell from the first song, that the record would sustain itself with integrity from track to track. I managed to find a used copy of the band’s 2001 release, Brassland. I disliked that CD so much that I haven’t bothered to put it on my computer or ipod. Now after reading the interview about their pending release, I can see that this is a band that works hard to improve and stretch itself in the creative process. In hindsight, it is impressive to see what a band can learn about itself in the space of six years, the time between 2001’s Brassland  and 2007’s Boxer. What impressed me so about Berninger’s interview was his ability to confess his struggle. He speaks of the band’s infighting, the hours spent working away at lyrics, his reluctance to listen to music while he’s in the thick of the creative process for fear that his own work might seem fruitless:
I missed an entire year of music in some ways. I listen to a song or two from people that I loved, just for inspiration here and there, but I don't know if it actually worked. I think it just frustrated me. You know, when you hear something you love so much and you feel like you're getting nowhere with a song, it often just makes it even harder to write to it.
David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote a classic text that all artists should read, Art and Fear. Here is a quote I return to often that captures the spirit of what the book speaks to,  “You’re not up to the task…you can’t do it, or can’t do it well, or can’t do it again; or that you’re not a real artist, or not a good artist, or have no talent, or have nothing to say.”

My assumption is that all of us have felt this way about something in our lives. Each of us fundamentally struggle with the significance of each of our own accomplishments. We go to bed at night wondering if what we have applied ourselves to during the preceding hours of the day was worth anything. The artist is only in a more vulnerable position because when she finishes her day’s work, she hopes an audience will behold the culmination of her work and decide whether or not her energies were fruitful or not. The artist is consistently looking over her shoulder in a very particular manner, and the more successful the artist, the higher the expectation and accompanying fear.

Being human, being creative, implies regularly facing fear. What we fear plainly reveals who we are essentially in the core of our beings. This is why as Christians we understand what may seem troubling to someone outside the faith, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is powerful. It can either smother us and kill us, or it can be an opportunity. Fear is the thrill that we conquer in the struggle of our faith in the deliberate, intentional labor of the creative processes of our lives. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world, that overcomes all doubt, all fear. When the writer sits before a blank page, a painter at a blank canvas or a mother wakens with a newborn child or a plumber or banker returns to another day of the grind or a teacher to her students, the question is if we have faith to believe that there are good things in store for each day, that one hope-filled creative decision will lead to another creative opportunity and to another.

Underneath this is a question of hope and optimism. It is a question of whether we can become more than what we are today. Can a person really change?

I’ve always struggled with the parable of the sower. If I was there with the disciples when Jesus explained the difference between the good soil, the rocky soil and the soil with thorny weeds my immediate question would have been, can a person become a different kind of soil? Can the rocky soil become fertile?

These are not just abstract reflections. My last four years have been terrifying in many ways. The move from my comfortable community in Oklahoma into public leadership—from teaching sixth graders to becoming a very public figure at Hope College—this has been a struggle. I’m an introvert for goodness sake! My marriage has been tested and stretched with Susanna and I being strong willed, independent people and with her living in Valparaiso during the week these past two years. My own art has been fraught with fear and insecurity. I’m still working on a record I began four years ago. I’m eight years into my master’s degree with only one final writing project left before graduation.

Yes, I’ll boast in my weakness.

At times fear has suffocated me, yet it is the fear that has forced me to become a different kind of leader, a different kind of husband and a different kind of artist. Yes, by the grace of God, we can change and become much more than we could ever imagine on our own. The past four years have been a further excursion in the pursuit of living life vibrantly and creatively.

I want my experience to be an encouragement to you. There is more, but our fears we will have to face.

Now unto Him who is able to abundantly more than anything we could ever ask or imagine, be blessing and glory, honor, power and majesty forever.

Here’s a link to an interview with Junot Diaz, a favorite author, from You’ll need to register to the website, but its free and a good read. Consider Diaz’ response to the question of faith in the writing process.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Another Excerpt From For the Beauty of the Church

David Taylor has posted an excerpt of my chapter from the book he's edited, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. He was just at Calvin last weekend leading a few workshops during Calvin College's annual worship symposium. Susanna and I took him out for some Indian food later that evening. I had to order this dish they called "Rogan Josh" because I wanted to know if something with my name in it could be tasty. Good food with a good brother--something that was good for my soul too. It is really nice to pick up where we left off with David last time. An aside: it was four years ago that we first met with David in Grand Rapids. Susanna was presenting at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Writing and David had just made his contact with Baker to sign a publication agreement. It was also during that weekend that I made my first visit to Hope College and began the interview process to take the postion I now have with Campus Ministries. It is faith building to consider what can happen in four years.

I met with the head editor of Baker at the end of the summer for lunch and we talked a bit about who exactly will be the readers of this book. Of course we want pastors and lay leaders to read it, but the question is how to get it into their hands. Maybe artists will need to read it first and then tell their pastors about it. So, here is another plug to try to get the word out. Less than one month till its release! I'll admit that looking through the table of contents on Amazon gave me butterflies in my stomach. It is hard to believe my chapter is in such amazing company: David Taylor, Eugene Peterson, John Witvliet, Lauren Winner, Jeremy Begbie, Barbara Nicolosi, and Andy Crouch.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

09-10 Chapel CD is under production

First off, I'm not mixing the record this year. It was hard to let go of, but I realized that after doing it three years straight, it may be a good time to learn from someone else and see what he might make of our tracks. So, Paul Chamness, our tech director is at the helm. So far from what I've heard, I'm really happy. The further good news is that I'm not working 12 hour days right now without any days off like I have in the past. That means I can actually focus on the worship leading and manage the overal production schedule of the CD with greater care. We have a title and just yesterday, I approved a cover design. My hope is to get things in such a solid place that I'll be able to go to the Arts Pastors retreat at Laity Lodge March 4-7. Susanna and I will not be able to take our annual trip to the Dominican Republic because our Spring Breaks are a whole week apart from each other. I'm really lamenting having to miss out on that trip.

Here is a working list of songs for the CD (not in order):

Sing Praise to God--re-worked hymn done by Jonathan Ytterock, one of my student leaders
Come Ye Sinners
Kwake Jesu--a Swahili song that the students really love
Take My Life--we've kept the original hymn tune but used Passion's added chorus
You'll Come--Hillsongs
Oh You Bring--Hillsongs
Desert Song--Hillsongs
All Hail Christ--one of my mine
Here is Mercy--another new one from me

There may be a few more added in the next week, but this is the core of it so far. I just realized that I don't lead any of these songs! What a difference four years of being in this ministry will do. I've really grown to trust my leaders because they really are great people and talented. The artwork is being done by Chris Cox, a junior. It is a deep delight to see our humble little crew of college students do so much. If you are interested, I've got tons of pictures of these guys on my facebook page. Here's some links:

Christmas Party 2010
Spring End of the Year Dinner