A Reputation Waiting To Be Rescued, Or Reflections On Tree63 From A Guy Who’s Never Heard Of Gareth Cliff

John Ellis
John Ellis

John Ellis

by Ben Wright
Originally published at brucedennill.co.za

Not many love affairs (musical of otherwise) start with a recommendation from your mother. As with many things, Tree63 was different (or Tree as they were known back when kids still played outside and people left their doors unlocked.)

Before Tree made it in America, they were touring my home country, England. As an evangelical teenager, I used to go to the sorts of places that Tree played– places like Greenbelt or Soul Survivor. These were places where I could worship loudly and proudly; and they were full of the right sort of chicks – Christian chicks. Loads of them. That’s not to take anything away from those types of festivals. It’s just that people often do good things with dual motives – be it teenagers or the people who run the Christian music industry.

More on the latter later.

I recently rediscovered Tree after several years of shunning most things Christian. Having burnt out working as a youth minister in America, I had a pretty bullet-proof system in place, which minimised my interaction with the web of bands, books and events that the West’s evangelical machine spins. Tree nevertheless managed to shuffle their way onto my playlist. To quote Vinnie Jones, “It’s been emotional” – like finding a box full of poems you wrote when you were 12, except these are really good poems.

Tree was important to me as a young person because they gave my fledgling faith words and phrases I couldn’t conjure up myself. A band before they were believers, their first albums lacked the baggage that so often plagues Christian music. There was always an audacious honesty to their lyrics that gave me a lexicon for praying and arguing with God. Everything was not okay in my corner of Christendom. I knew this was not how it was meant to be. So did Tree.

Finding them again has reminded me of what a young, new faith sounds like. Overflow exhibits a brash irreverent form of joy; smart, intelligent, and raucous; without the naval gazing. Later, 63 was, musically speaking, a giant leap forward, sounding thicker and darker. The joy is still there (Treasure) but it’s dancing with doubt now (Have Your Way). However, after Life And Times, the freshness seemed to become fainter, as if made opaque by increasing layers of evangelical sheen.

In many ways, Tree’s musical journey mirrors that of many Christians. It certainly mirrored mine. Overflow is the guy who just met Jesus and doesn’t know any of the rules yet. Room exists for humour. Hope and naivety breed a raw bounce. Then, 63 steps up the commitment; the fury is focused and taking numbers; doubt creeps in but hope triumphs. Life And Times is something of a high tide for “the glorious ones”. But by The Answer To The Question the honeymoon is over. Things start to ossify. Church politics casts a shadow, disguising clichés as compromise. It’s still possible to find gems (Overdue), but the first love is being forgotten. I never listened to Sunday until I started writing this piece. It sounds like burnout.

What happened to Tree? Perhaps a random Brit living in America isn’t the best judge. Nevertheless, here goes.

In 2004, John Sullivan wrote in GQ: “Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians.” It does this through “obviousness and maximum palatability” providing the faithful with a steady stream of domesticated knock-off brands that mirror secular music. Because of this, Sullivan concluded, Christian music “has excellence-proofed itself” – the core mission is not artful expression (those guys get weeded out) but sanctified mediocrity.

I think Tree spent their time in the genre like a square peg being forced into a round hole. No wonder they look hammered when I met them.

That was in 2003, back when I was a youth minister in El Paso, Texas. A big church had booked them and I was the warm-up act. After I’d played my set, I got to meet the band in their camper van backstage. They were friendly, but obviously tired. I remember noticing one member of the band’s pupils dilating a little when I sat down and made myself comfortable. Luckily I was politely whisked away by some minders before I’d had the chance to pick their weary brains. Their gig went well (they were always pros weren’t they?) and afterward they were generous with their time, talking to kids and signing autographs. But I remember later reflecting on how tired they had seemed in that camper. And how unglamorous being a Christian musician actually was.

John Ellis recently told Rolling Stone that Tree “very nearly became a run-of-the-mill money-making machine.” I’m glad they didn’t because those sorts of golden handcuffs are hard to escape. For established Christian bands in America the deal is simple:

* Don’t come out as gay (or – worse – a Democrat)

* Don’t speak truth to power

* Stick to singing variations of “Jesus is my girlfriend, this I know”

* Rinse and repeat.

If you do this, you’ll have no problem affording one of those big houses in some sunbelt suburb—that was certainly where I expected to find Tree earlier this year when I went a’googling. Having turned my own corner, I‘ve been exploring how to reconnect with the larger Christian community while avoiding the sorts of things that make me boil over into cynicism. (Things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-WOneEXr00). I figured Tree would either be churning out new covers of Matt Redman songs or would have fizzled out. With that in mind, it was with real joy that I discovered Ellis’ solo music.

Beautifully honest, eloquently provocative and devoid of the Christianese that had crept in at Tree’s nadir, Ellis has much to be proud of. Sometimes I wonder how these songs would sound with Darryl Swart and Daniel Ornellas in the engine room, but there’s a time for everything. Ellis’ sound doesn’t have the swash and buckle that marked Tree, but room has been made for something more vulnerable. Just like with the faith story of a person, hurt and distrust can eventually give way to the sort of humility and maturity you hear across Rural; the cry for justice heard on Rights All Wronged; the cheerful pathos of All Too Soon or the mocking ambiguity of Waiting to be Rescued.

With this in mind, I’m a little confused as to the disappointment (not to mention outrage) that Ellis has elicited from certain people. His music and persona seem a logical progression from Tree63 – the same honesty and pugnacity; more edge, more politics; different context. As an outsider to the South African scene, it appears that he’s said a few things on the radio or in print that were broad enough to be construed as discouraging. But isn’t that understandable? People make the Bible mean whatever they want it to mean – do we expect artists to do any different?

The Old Testament prophets raged against the machine, exposing sin not just through their words, but also through the reaction their words precipitated. I’m not saying Ellis is a prophet, but judging by the comments section on his blog, there is a soft underbelly of hypocrisy in the church, on either side of the Atlantic, that he slices open. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Most of all, I’m grateful he got out.

The Christian music industry is a world where dreams are all for sale. It chews up and spits out the best of what it trolls. The bands that survive are the apparatchiks who tow the party line, cheesy chorus after chorus. To all this Ellis said, in his own words, “f**k it.” He could only have been more orthodox if he’d turned over the tables and whipped the moneylenders.

But happily, the story doesn’t end there. Today, the music industry is evolving rapidly. Perhaps, 20 years ago, Ellis’ solo music would have remained locked up in the obscurity of Durban coffee shops. Instead, it’s now accessible to all, unadulterated by the need to get past some record label exec. The machine has lost control of the means of production. The musings of the meek are free to inherit the earth, one retweet (or better still one Bandcamp donation) at a time.

Tree came to fruition in an industry where you had to pick sides. Ultimately, they were too edgy for those in the church and too churchy for those on the edge. That’s not something that John Ellis has to worry about any more.

***

Ben Wright worships and writes in Austin, Texas. You can listen to his music at https://soundcloud.com/ben-wrightintx/. His Twitter handle is @benwrightintx.

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Fr. Robert Barron on Woody Allen’s Bleak Vision

Diane Keaton Woody Allen, Jerry Lacy on the Broadway show, "Play it Again, Sam"
Diane Keaton Woody Allen, Jerry Lacy on the Broadway show, "Play it Again, Sam"

Diane Keaton Woody Allen, Jerry Lacy on the Broadway show, “Play it Again, Sam”

by Fr. Robert Barron,
Originally published at Mark Shea’s blog
963 words


I was chagrined, but not entirely surprised, when I read Woody Allen’s recent ruminations on ultimate things. To state it bluntly, Woody could not be any bleaker in regard to the issue of meaning in the universe. We live, he said, in a godless and purposeless world. The earth came into existence through mere chance and one day it, along with every work of art and cultural accomplishment, will be incinerated. The universe as a whole will expand and cool until there is nothing left but the void. Every hundred years or so, he continued, a coterie of human beings will be “flushed away” and another will replace it until it is similarly eliminated. So why does he bother making films—roughly one every year? Well, he explained, in order to distract us from the awful truth about the meaninglessness of everything, we need diversions, and this is the service that artists provide. In some ways, low level entertainers are probably more socially useful than high-brow artistes, since the former manage to distract more people than the latter. After delivering himself of this sunny appraisal, he quipped, “I hope everyone has a nice afternoon!”

Woody Allen’s perspective represents a limit-case of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the buffered self,” which is to say, an identity totally cut off from any connection to the transcendent. On this reading, this world is all we’ve got, and any window to another more permanent mode of existence remains tightly shut. Prior to the modern period, Taylor observes, the contrary idea of the “porous self” was in the ascendency. This means a self that is, in various ways and under various circumstances, open to a dimension of existence that goes beyond ordinary experience. If you consult the philosophers of antiquity and the Middle Ages, you would find a very frank acknowledgement that what Woody Allen observed about the physical world is largely true. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas all knew that material objects come and go, that human beings inevitably pass away, that all of our great works of art will eventually cease to exist. But those great thinkers wouldn’t have succumbed to Allen’s desperate nihilism. Why? Because they also believed that there were real links to a higher world available within ordinary experience, that certain clues within the world tip us off to the truth that there is more to reality than meets the eye.

One of these routes of access to the transcendent is beauty. In Plato’s Symposium, we can read an exquisite speech by a woman named Diotima. She describes the experience of seeing something truly beautiful—an object, a work of art, a lovely person, etc.—and she remarks that this experience carries with it a kind of aura, for it lifts the observer to a consideration of the Beautiful itself, the source of all particular beauty. If you want to see a more modern version of Diotima’s speech, take a look at the evocative section of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the narrator relates his encounter with a beautiful girl standing in the surf off the Dublin strand and concludes with the exclamation, “Oh heavenly God.” John Paul II was standing in this same tradition when, in his wonderful letter to artists, he spoke of the artist’s vocation as mediating God through beauty. To characterize artistic beauty as a mere distraction from the psychological oppression of nihilism is a tragic reductionism.

A second classical avenue to transcendence is morality, more precisely, the unconditioned demand of the good. On purely nihilist grounds, it is exceptionally difficult to say why anyone should be morally upright. If there are starving children in Africa, if there are people dying of AIDS in this country, if Christians are being systematically persecuted around the world…well who cares? Every hundred years or so, a coterie of human beings is flushed away and the cold universe looks on with utter indifference. So why not just eat, drink, and be merry and dull our sensitivities to innocent suffering and injustice as best we can? In point of fact, the press of moral obligation itself links us to the transcendent, for it places us in the presence of a properly eternal value. The violation of one person cries out, quite literally, to heaven for vengeance; and the performance of one truly noble moral act is a participation in the Good itself, the source of all particular goodness. Indeed, even some of those who claim to be atheists and nihilists implicitly acknowledge this truth by the very passion of their moral commitments, a very clear case in point being Christopher Hitchens. One can find a disturbing verification of Woody Allen’s rejection of this principle in two of his better films, Crimes and Misdemeanors from the 1980’s and Match Point from the 2000’s. In both movies, men commit horrendous crimes, but after a relatively brief period of regret, they move on with their pampered lives. No judgment comes, and all returns to normal. So it goes in a flattened out world in which the moral link to transcendence has been severed.

Perhaps this conviction is born of my affection for many of Woody Allen’s films, but I’m convinced that the great auteur doesn’t finally believe his own philosophy. There are simply too many hints of beauty, truth, and goodness in his movies, and protest all he wants, these will speak of a reality that transcends this fleeting world.

***

Mark Shea is a catholic writer, speaker, actor and all-round loudmouth from Seattle, U.S. Follow him on Twitter – @chezami

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Musicians Under Fire

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by Ryan Peter | 1110 words
Published at The Christian Blogger


 

Recently, Dove-award winning group Gungor (a husband and wife duo) came under fire for “drifting from orthodoxy” in saying that they no longer take certain things in the Bible literally (such as Adam and Eve or the Flood) in a blog post on their site entitled: What do we believe? As per WORLD Magazine, this comes off the back of Gungor’s latest efforts, The Liturgists and God our Mother.

‘The second EP, God Our Mother, supports moving beyond the Scriptural formulation of God as Father, since that allegedly limits an appreciation of God’s fullness: “To know only God the Father would be like only knowing daytime, and never knowing night.” Apophatic Mysticism—the practice of reciting phrases that negate each other—is offered as a way to grow beyond language and gender limitations to experience God more fully. In an extended track, they meditate on the phrase “God is my father” and move on to “God is not my father.” And finally the breakthrough: “God is not, not my father.”’

WORLD Magazine’s Jeff Koch closes his article by saying:

“Gungor is clearly still animated and inspired by the person of Jesus. But it was Jesus who upheld the authority of Scripture and whose recipe for divine connection was fairly simple: “Our Father, who is in Heaven, hallowed be your name …”

Michael Gungor from the group is the nephew of popular speaker Mark Gungor (well known for his DVD series’ on marriage). Out of all the discussion, I found Mark Gungor’s response on Facebook interesting and straightforward. I thought it’s worth posting, given our strong focus on music in our last edition of The Christian Blogger.

Many have asked what I think about the controversy surrounding award winning Christian music artist Michael Gungor (who happens to be my nephew). He has been quoted as saying that he does not believe in the literal seven days of creation (well, six days of actual creating, one day of resting – best to be precise). He also has doubts of the account of Noah and the flood.

I don’t much care for Michael’s theology – but then he is not a theologian. And let’s be clear: Many Christians hold the same thinking. And while I disagree with them, it does not rise to the level of exclusion from the Kingdom of God. Michael believes in Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God and the ONLY way to the Father. Anyone who embraces that truth is a believing Christian – period. How they view the Old Testament accounts is of little concern to me. Just because another believer views parts of the Bible outside regular Evangelical standards does not mean they should be shunned, rebuked, ridiculed or rejected. For heavens sake…

“But he has a new song entitled ‘God our Mother’!!!”

Odd, to be sure. And shocking to the thinking of many (which was probably the point). But God IS referred to in the Old Testament as “El Shaddai” which literally translated means: The multi-breasted one. It is a reference to God being our provider. And as best as I can tell, most men don’t have breasts that feed – only mothers do.

Look, the real problem as I see it is that we raise musicians to the level of prophet, pastor, theologian or more. They are not necessarily any of those things. They are musicians – period. They can write, play and sing better than most people on the planet and have chosen to use those gifts to glorify God – and we appreciate that. But it should end there. They are not holier, more righteous, more spiritual or even more educated than many believers who work as mechanics in a car shop.

For years I have spoken out against the “lifting up” of musicians in the church, treating them as though they had some special “anointing”. The only thing they have that is special is the ability to write, sing or play. The musicians in our church in Green Bay do what they do for only one reason: they can sing or play. They are not specially “anointed” nor are they given the status of elder, deacon, pastor or ANYTHING special. They are musicians – period.

We have so lifted up these artists (many of them clueless) that at some point they start believing what others say about them. They start believing they are something more special than others. They are not. And one of the things they are CERTAINLY not is they are NOT theologians.

My advice to the musically gifted among us is simple:

1. Don’t think you are something special just because you can sing or play.

2. There is no special “anointing” on you. News flash: We don’t live in the Old Testament anymore. You are not Elijah, Jeremiah or Isaiah. “In the last days I will pour my spirit upon ALL flesh” – not just singers…

3. And when it comes to POLITICS and controversial THEOLOGY, for the love of God: SHUT THE HELL UP!! (Not cussing. I just think a lot of their “thinking” comes from hell.) We don’t care about what you think. Just sing or play and try to practice the one thing that seems to escape so many of you: Humility.

I don’t think Mark is saying that there is no anointing on musicians, just no “special” anointing. At any rate, I think he does touch on the strange tendency of our culture to place artists on a pedestal. But what’s worth saying, however, is it does seem that artists of all kinds generally carry some kind of prophetic anointing (and this depends on how you see prophecy work out these days). But I only say that from experience, I don’t really know where to show that in the Bible. But even if so, the way in which bands like Jesus Culture and Hillsong are elevated in many Christian circles is rather concerning. Perhaps it concerns me more than others because when I was younger I used to elevate musicians quite a bit (especially since I wanted to do music full time).

As an aside (and out of theological interest) Mark was challenged on his statement about El Shaddai meaning “multi-breasted one”. According to the website hebrew4christians.com this is implied.

“Jacob’s blessing given in Genesis 49:25, however, indicates that Shaddai might be related to the word for breasts (shadaim), indicating sufficiency and nourishment (i.e., “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (בִּרְכת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם)).  In this case, the Name might derive from the contraction of sha (“who”) and dai (“enough”) to indicate God’s complete sufficiency to nurture the fledgling nation into fruitfulness. Indeed, God first uses this Name when He refers to multiplying Abraham’s offspring (Gen. 17:2).”

Female P0rn

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by Olivia Langeveldt | 793 words
Originally published at easyupstream.wordpress.com


There was a competition on the radio to win tickets to one of the semi-final games of the World Cup here in Cape Town. People had to call in and convince the host and his studio audience to give them the tickets. There was some big applause for the life-long fan wearing his ten year old Holland jersey. Did he win? No. How about the fan willing to drive quite a distance into the city to come and get the tickets and see the game? Mild applause. And the new parents needing a break from baby and some fun time with each other? Kriekies. (Followed by raucous laughter). The winning call, receiving wild applause, whistling and whooting, was a desperate husband having no other excuse convincing enough to get out of watching Eclipse that night with his wife. Poor guy.

Why, lady? Why would you do that to your husband? It’s the equivalent of him wanting to take you along to a strip show. (And then getting upset when you don’t want to and saying ‘You just don’t get it!’) Sound like a harsh comparison? Hear me out.

We walk into a movie and suspend our disbelief for its duration. The film-maker has license to make up the world of the movie; we decide to buy into it for the sake of enjoyment and entertainment. When the movie ends we come back to reality. Or, at least, we’re supposed to.

Problems arise when we apply the movie world rules or expectations to real life. ‘Why can’t you be like Edward? That’s real love.’ It would all be fine and well if things like that were said in a jocular or even dreamy way. You know… ‘If only things were like that in this world.’ But it’s understood that it isn’t and don’t really expect it to be. But, I fear, this is not the case.

Women have been on a steady diet of this type of thing for too long. Romantic novels and movies paint a picture of the perfect guy demonstrating a perfect love. A Prince Charming, a Knight on a quest with his shining armour and white stallion, the cute best-friend boy-next-door. And Edward is the perfect perfect guy. Strong, silent-type. Noble. Courageous. Honourable. Chivalrous. Gentle. Self-controlled. (Note: I haven’t seen the movies but read the books.)

The female lead is, conversely, quite flawed. Bella lies, manipulates, and is absorbed in her own world. She’s self-concious about her appearance and doesn’t feel like she quite fits in- just like us, right? We’re meant to identify with her. And we rightly do. We also want to identify with her happy ending. We want our Edward. (And a Jacob vying for our attention wouldn’t be bad either.)

A similar thing happens in another much adored (by women) movie, The Notebook. The female lead is less than perfect and makes some bad choices yet has a happy ending with her loyal, unwavering lover. It leaves women putting an unfair expectation of perfection on men and demands no such thing from themselves.

These stories could only have been written by females. Male writers like Ian Fleming (who writes the James Bond books) have women who are beautiful and mysterious. (You know… ‘Enough with all the talking, Woman!’) And they enjoy uncommitted sex of the male fantasy type.

Now I come to my (maybe harsh?) comparison. This is why I call it female porn. It’s the same unfair expectation that a man would have of a woman to really be like the kind he sees in James Bond movies or porn videos or magazines. That’s not reality, it’s fantasy. And it would not only be unfair but inappropriate for you to say to your woman, ‘Why can’t you be like that?’

And this female porn is as damaging to relationships as the male kind. Creating and then feeding these unfair expectations causes dissatisfaction or disappointment, then resentment and perhaps disdain for the under-performing partner.

You might say that this is no different to the Jane Austen I read. But the thing with the Darcys and Elizabeths is that they are shown to be flawed and in need of redemption. They make their mistakes and learn some lessons. They seek for and exchange not only love but much needed grace and forgiveness.

The winner of the tickets asked his wife to join him at the game but she went and watched Eclipse anyway. See? Real man. Real woman. Relationships need mutually offered grace and understanding and not one partner holding another up to an unrealistic ideal of a fictional character. Because Edward would never go to that game. And if he did, Bella would be there tagging along lest she die of heartache from the separation.

***

Olivia Lang is a Capetonian who blogs at easyupstream.wordpress.com where she looks at the world and its ways, society and the culture, and how strong a pull these have on how we live. Follow Olivia on Twitter – @OliviaLang.

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15 Years On: Secular Versus Spiritual; Or Reasons To Get Delirious?

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DeliriousBowOut

by Ben Wright | 1234 words
Originally published at brucedennill.co.za


What is Christian music? How is it different from music made by Christians? Is it different from church music? And why is it usually quite bad? As a worship leader, these are the sorts of questions I like to bore people to death with. However, like most theological quandaries, such questions can be answered simply with a combination of crudeness and arrogance.

So here goes: church music is congregational. Music made by Christians is self-explanatory (U2, Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Mumford or whatever.) And Christian music is bad. Bad, bad, bad. To quote Hank Hill, “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock ‘n’ roll worse.” For a time, Delirious were the exception to that rule. And then they proved it.

Fifteen years ago Delirious released Mezzamorphis. A beautiful, inventive and edgy album, it had British Christians either bopping along or getting their knickers in a twist. Not many years before, Delirious had evolved out of a local youth worship scene with Hugh Grant haircuts and a faux-folk sound. Going full time in 1997, they’d plugged in their guitars and begun to forge a sound that was both Christian and, well, contemporary. The album King Of Fools did well and their single Deeper – a preppy, poppy, praisey nugget of a tune – made the UK Top 20. British Christians had never had a Creed or a Switchfoot, so naturally we took this as a sign of the end times and the coming revival.

But Mezzamorphis was different. It was moody. Jesus wasn’t mentioned by name. The word “hell” was used on one song, causing it to be banned from a smattering of Christian stores. All this ignored the fact that it was a freaking great record. Elements of dance and techno (which like Delirious, were rooted in the UK long before crossing the Atlantic) merged with boisterous guitars, pounding drums and intelligent basslines. The lyrics are thoughtful odes to the insecurities and contradictions of an honest faith. “Ignite a battered flame that once was bright”; “I’ve walked down a road where the devil’s been”; “I’m on a mezzanine floor, never been here before.”

As a 17-year old (with a Hugh Grant haircut and a faux-folk sound) I was blown away. My musical tastes had always lived in two worlds; the awkward acoustic world of Christian praise and the devilish world of Radiohead et al. Mezzamorphis (drum roll) had a foot in each world without (second drum roll) selling either short – what was possible had been opened up for me. I could lend Mezzamorphis to my non-Christian friends and they probably wouldn’t use it as an ashtray.

And indeed, sinners did like it. Q Magazine acclaimed the album’s “anthemic melodies” from a band who (for Christians) were a rarity – “neither Celtic nor crap.” But my youth minister wasn’t so sure. “Why wouldn’t they use their fame and power to say the name of Jesus on the radio?” “Well … hmmm … good point,” I vexed.

Mezzamorphis vexed a lot of people. In a time before social media, there just isn’t the Googlable evidence available to fully document the ranting and raised eyebrows that ensued. One Christian review (archived online) praised the album for “honest powerful tunes” but warned of a lack of “flag-waving type songs with obvious messages.” “Some people think if you haven’t mentioned the word Jesus, you’ve completely lost your faith,” said keyboardist Tim Jupp in an interview.

“‘Can a band that believe in Jesus play good rock-n-roll?” asked lead singer Martin Smith in a letter to UK fans on the eve of the album’s June release in America. Smith was reacting to “a perception by some that we have sold out.” The accusation was that Delirious had piggy-backed their way into the UK charts on the back of the faithful’s buying power, but had forgotten their roots and were poised to ditch Jesus in the pursuit of recognition. Can Christians make good secular music? “Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible and creates a big tension between the two camps,” lamented Smith.

Delirious were “misunderstood”, “caught between two worlds” and had “opened up a gulf” between themselves and the church, wrote Smith in his autobiography. They reacted with bi-polar zeal. 2000’s Glo was straight up Praise and Worship. Jesus was back, even if the folk remained forsaken. However, 2001’s Audio Lessonover was weird, wonderful and even more godless than Mezzamorphis. (Multiple time signatures per song; lyrics like “You don’t have to believe to belong”; and a B-side that is rather obviously a satire on George W Bush). Christians baulked, talking smack at dinner parties and refusing the buy the song sheets.

Luckily for Delirious, Mezzamorphis and Audio Lessonover hardly made a dent in the US But it wasn’t long before Glo’s My Glorious was being belted out by American youth leaders looking for a good message with a British accent. Whether by design or default Delirious got the message and started knocking out pandering tunes at a brisk clip. World Service, Mission Bell, and Kingdom Of Comfort sold like hot cakes and hit all the right buttons for evangelicals. But they sorely lacked the sincerity and creativity of earlier recordings. “We’ve become our own cover band,” deprecated Smith at one concert I attended. The reality was sadder – they’d become their own caricature. They’d become Coldplay.

Q picked up on it: “Their isolation is shifting them towards polished earnest-period U2”; “the quintet have seemingly given up on non-believers.” I felt they had given up on me too. Now in my twenties, shorn of bangs and burning out fast on the conveyor belt that produces youth ministers, I felt caught in an echo chamber with no way out. Delirious had cashed in and were now adding to the echoes rather than pointing to the exit.

Did they sell out? Probably not. Maybe they just got older, losing that creative naivety that exhibits such a cruel bias toward youth. Besides, sinners weren’t exactly tearing their clothes and asking “what must I do to be saved” in response to contemplating the storm-in-a-teacup tensions bevelled into Mezzamorphis. UK radio stations had always greeted them with a combination of suspicion and hostility, even refusing to play them at times. At one point, Jupp accused the BBC of cynicism and arrogance (Audio Lessonover is a cheeky anagram of “Radio One Loves Us.”) For a band who now had wives, kids and mortgages to think about, America must have seemed like the promised land.

So back to Hank Hill. For a season, Delirious bridged church and culture, making rock better and Christianity no worse. Nevertheless, Delirious practiced what The Timescalled “covert evangelism” and neither heathen nor hardliner approved. As the mezzanine floor cracked, Delirious parachuted to the safety of Contemporary Christian Music, which is (how shall we put it?) … not Celtic. The mezzanine floor is now a glass ceiling. And that’s okay. We’ll live to fight another day.

As for me, I’ve ditched the guitar. I’ve abandoned the pandering. I’m no longer a youth minister. I’ve now got a side parting. And I’ve just bought a drum machine. I’m messing around with liturgy again. Christian music will never be cool, prophetic or even necessary; but Church music just might be all three. I still want to go deeper. And like the brave d:boys of yesteryear, I’m not backing down.

***

Ben Wright worships and writes in Austin Texas. He secretly likes World Service. This post was published at Bruce Dennill’s pArticipate. Follow Bruce on Twitter – @BroosDennill.

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Friendship

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by Graham Heslop | 637 Words
Originally published at rekindle.co.za


Friendship has been cheapened. Though we have seen no drastic shift in our lifetime I am convinced that we find ourselves in a generally negative trend with regards to friendship. The tragedy of this trend goes further than losing the richly significant role friendship once played in human life and flourishing, for I believe Christians have lost sight of the crucial role deep friendships play in discipleship and spiritual growth. The cheapening of friendship as an integral part of all of human life, and specifically Christian life, needs assessment and I hope to convince you to revaluate your own understanding of friendship in this brief post.

Defining friendship

Defining friendship is not a simple task. Biblical reference to it is thin and we have largely lost touch with the fullness and rich appreciation many cultures throughout history have attributed to it. A great place to start is to point out that the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has never known anything less than perfect other-person centeredness as Trinity. Our God is relational; his fundamental nature consists of personal intimacy and communion. As Christoph Schwöbel writes in his essay Recovering Human Dignity, the imago Dei means human relationality is explained by the relationality of God. Adam’s intensely relational capacity sheds light on how it was possible for him to be in a ‘not good’ condition when he walked Eden with his Creator. Because we are created in the image of our God we are created with the need for intimate and self-giving relationships.

I do not think that this deep and other-person centred intimacy should be limited to marriage, as many tend to do today. In 1 Samuel 18:1 and Deuteronomy 13:6 we are given a vivid description of friendship as ‘souls knit together.’ Michael Haykin comments that this metaphor says friends are intimate companions to each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings, bearing ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty. We are so caught up with the “one flesh” of Genesis 2:24 that we completely overlook the knitting of souls in holy and spiritual friendship. I love how this metaphor in some ways reflects the Trinitarian nature, for there is plurality and oneness, merged yet distinct persons. Despite the scant references to friendship in Scripture, this description alone should enrich our impoverished definition and practice of friendship.

In Spiritual Friendship Aelred of Rievaulx says, “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God. I realise some readers might find this comes too close to our definition of marriage. Perhaps that is because we operate with a biblical definition of marriage but a culturally informed definition of friendship. So we limit love to romance, intimacy to physicality, and oneness to marriage. This is far from God’s intention for the gift of friendship and a misunderstanding of the imago Dei.

The purpose of friendship

1. Hedonism. As with all good things, friendship is a gift from God to be gratefully enjoyed. Though he goes on to say more, Aelred writes, “True friendship is the fruit and reward in and of itself”. Hear Augustine in his Confessions on the pleasures of friendship,“To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together…to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity…to teach each other something…to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.” Furthermore, if our friendships imitated God’s Trinitarian and self-giving relationality they would provide unending joy, security, and love. Friendship is a gift from God that is entailed in the imago Dei, yet we spend most of our lives content with vague reflections of true friendship.

Spiritual-friendship2. Holiness. Moving on from the above point, friendship has to be about more than itself. Friends need a common pursuit, or shared interests and longings. We can say that there must be a shared direction. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, writes that the best friendships are cultivated when there is something both friends are seriously committed to. To develop this point further, Aelred says that a friend desires nothing that is unbecoming and never fails to wish for what is becoming. It involves willing and not willing the same things for each other; like desires and denials. For Christian friendships, another way of putting this is the pursuit of holiness, spiritual growth and the opposition of sin. I am convinced that the greatest shared direction for any friendship is towards Christlikeness. Listen to this great quote from Gregory of Nazianzus about a close friend, “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians”

3. Heaven. C.S. Lewis famously said, in The Weight of Glory,that we have never met a mere mortal. We are all eternal. Only people will last forever. The hard truth is however is that while friendship is a wonderful gift from God in the present, not all friendships will last in eternity. In Confessions, Augustine writes about a dear friend, what we might call a ‘best friend,’ who became ill and died in his twenties. Though Augustine joyfully reflects on what they had when his friend was alive, he laments what was lost: “I had poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die.” He speaks of his soul being lacerated by the loss of his friend and becoming miserably inconsolable. In the post linked above I make this point: eternal friendship is only enjoyed by those who are in Christ and will be with him in glory. Friendships will tragically end on earth with death, and some will carry on into heaven. With this point we learn that friendship can be one of the most important experiences in our lives, not only because they will continue in glory but also because as Christians we can introduce others to the man who laid down his life for his friends.

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Graham Heslop has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dips into theology, & desires to do youth ministry. Follow him on Twitter – @avosquirrel

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Three Things I Appreciated in Aronofsky’s Noah

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by James Cuénod | 1466 words
Originally published at rekindle.co.za


 

I watched Noah with my Bible study and we had some interesting discussion afterwards. It’s a movie that most of the Christians I hang out with will (and do) hate and I understand why. Aronofsky’s Noah was never going to follow the biblical story accurately though was it? A helpful question to ask of the movie, “does it retain the message of the Biblical account?” Asking that sort of question allows us to get over stowaways, stone giants and the bloodthirsty Noah we had never imagined.

Honestly, I quite like the fact that it didn’t look like a children’s Bible with a happy giraffe poking his head through a window and a blissful Noah smiling out of the page. Both the happy giraffe and the stone giants are equally interpretive and incorrect. However, both could be used to tell the message of the story. At first glance, I would even guess that the grim face of Aronofsky’s blockbuster would be more likely to do it. So for the Christians who hate this movie and can’t see any redeeming features in it (or aren’t even going to go and watch it) here are three things that I appreciated from it. Far from endorsing the movie, however, I have to say that it failed at communicating the message of Noah and even among the positives I’ll make some qualifications.

1. Evil Must Be Destroyed

God Clicks Delete

Tell the average person the story of Noah and you’re bound to hear about how the Christian God is a bloodthirsty, cosmocidal (that’s a word right?), angry old man and everyone should hate him. That’s because it’s pretty difficult to show someone how it could be good that God blot out everything he’s made. It was Gregory Alan Thornbury’s blog at TGC that I read before watching Noah that made me notice the way Aronofsky shows us a world in which evil is “really that bad“.

This is a critical starting point for Noah because, as Thornbury points out, only “against radical depravity can mercy actually make sense” and the point is, through the movie, I found myself on God’s side. I wanted the world to be destroyed and I wanted evil to be judged. I saw evil spread in a Tolkienesque way across the planet (not the most creative image any more) and I wanted God to fix it. I didn’t want to see his creation being ravaged and I didn’t want the dreary land of Mordor to swallow up everything good (and I wondered how Methuselah’s mountain had survived). If the only way to stop the advance of evil was to start again, so be it, clear the slate.

I was disappointed that Noah went to help the preyed on antelope and didn’t get attacked by it. I wanted to see animals as part of a creation in rebellion against God. After all, I would think a fallen world would make it hard to survive and fight against human flourishing. It made perfect sense why I didn’t get my wish when I found out why God was saving anything at all, it turns out the animals are innocent. A theological error I could have lived with if it weren’t the basis for so much foolish application today. The innocence of the animals also undermines mercy because they deserved it, a characteristic that does not belong to those in need of mercy. The need for evil to make sense of mercy never came into play anyway though as “Creator” is pretty much indifferent when it comes to “mercy” I also think that the evil I saw was not an evil that I thought was present in the world in which I live.

2. Flood Restores

New Life

This is definitely my favourite point. One of the first things that excited me as I watched Noah was that first drop of water. If memory serves, it was the first hint of judgement. It was not only a hint of judgement though, it was also a promise of restoration. I appreciated the fact that Aronofsky’s flood was not purely destructive but that it had the underlying purpose of restoration and recreation (not relaxation, “re-creation”). The movie regularly invites to think of the “new world” or “paradise” and look forward to it.

In his New Testament Biblical Theology, Beale speaks of a five part sequence he calls “Inaugurated Eschatology”. He describes the pattern in the creation account (1) chaos of earth and waters (2) creation (3) commission of Adam as king for divine glory (4) Adam’s sin (5) Adam’s judgement and exile. This pattern Beale then identifies in the flood account: (1) chaos of earth and waters at flood (2) new creation (3) commission of Noah as new Adam for divine glory (4) new Adam’s sin (5) judgement and exile throughout the earth at Babel (see pg59-60). I have found Beale an incredibly compelling read and he is certainly worth working through. Nevertheless, consider the Genesis account.

I first noticed the “decreationalness” of things in 7:17-24 (you should read it before you carry on and think about creation as you do so). I don’t know whether the ark “floating on the face of the waters” is supposed to remind you of the Spirit’s hovering but I think the connection is what made me look for more. Looking for more, I noticed a whole bunch of creation parallels. Firstly the reason for the flood is framed in creation language: “I will blot out man whom I have created … from I am sorry that I have made them” (6:7). Animals sorted by kinds come onto the ark, as God created them. The sea covers the earth, the reversal of the time God had once gathered it, letting dry land appear. I mean really, everything dies in contrast to everything coming to life. The lynch pin for me though is in 8:16-17 where the recreational stuff comes to the fore and God says, as Noah is preparing to disembark, “Go out from the ark … Bring out with you every living thing … that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” and then 9:1 “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them …” the creation mandate!

So although the flood is “decreational” in judgement it is recreational in purpose and I think that was evident in the movie.

3. Everyone is Evil

Evil Inside

In an incredulously profound moment, Noah explains to his wife that the same evil that had plunged God’s world into chaos and disaster was alive in him and indeed in everyone on the boat. Profound because Aronofsky’s Noah has seen something that Joe Bloggs either can’t or won’t. Incredulous because in spite of the fact that it is a revelation, it is difficult for the viewer to truly believe (there is just too much love by this point in the movie).

This realisation shapes the primary motivation for Noah’s character. Noah decides that he must prevent any human offspring from surviving in way that will enable procreation in the new world. This drives him down a path of homicidal insanity which works very hard at undermining all the gains made concerning as far as the justice of God. It is still a valuable point to take from the movie and Noah proves his case pointing out his own evil in his willingness to kill for his sons (although this point the audience would naturally think is an indicator of innate goodness rather than evil) and the base passions that in turn drive them (lust, for example – which is another passion not terribly concerning to our society).

The real weakness though at this point is that the viewer no longer sympathises with Noah and, as Nathan Lovell pointed out in his reflection, we sympathise more with the loving family members. That’s what it’s about after all, love (and the animals of course).

Conclusion

Christians, in my experience, make pretty poor audiences. On the one hand, we reject things because we don’t like them or they don’t fit our theological framework. On the other hand, we thoughtlessly embrace things we shouldn’t in the name of art. It’s worth reflecting on these things though so that we are better able to engage our culture. I wouldn’t recommend Aronofsky’s Noah but I would watch and discuss it with my Bible study again because the reasons for which we criticise things are as important as whether we reject or embrace them.

P. S. I am thinking about following this up with posts on (1) the good reasons to criticise this movie, (2) whether the biblical covenant with Noah has any value since God is going to destroy the world again anyway, (3) whether we can/should pity demons, (4) who the Nephilim were. So tell me if you’re interested in one of them (or something else) and I’ll write on that first.

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Pastoral intern at Christ Church Hilton since 2013, James loves wrestling with Scripture and limping away. If finances permit, he hopes to do an MA Biblical Studies overseas in 2015. Follow him on Twitter – @JamesCuenod

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How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin

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by Graham Heslop | 901 words
Originally published at rekindle.co.za


 

As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

I agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.

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Graham Heslop has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dips into theology, & desires to do youth ministry. Follow him on Twitter – @avosquirrel

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