Sunday, March 30, 2008

Reading / Listening / Watching – March 2008

It has been a while since I've posted so I thought I'd do an update of what I've been up to.


I'm a little past halfway through the brilliant new Beatles book Can't Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould. I wrote about it before I started reading it and it is every bit as good as many of the reviews say it is. It does a great job of not only talking about the lives of the Beatles but it also puts that and their music in the context of the times and the political social and artistic changes that were happening in the world. On top of that there is a song by song discussion of each of their recordings. It really is special and, while it is a bit too in-depth to be anyone's first book about the Beatles, for someone like me who has read lots of books on the Beatles, I'm enjoying it immensely.

I have, for the past couple of years, participated in the Calvin Theological Seminary book of the quarter reading group and this quarter we're reading Elizabeth Strout's Abide With Me, a fascinating look at the life of a small town preacher who's wife's death has brought him, his young daughter and their community personal turmoil. It is only through allowing his church to see him broken and in need of help that he can once again effectively lead them. We'll get together three times to discuss the book, once with the author who is visiting Calvin for the Festival of Faith and Writing! It's a good book and I enjoyed it a lot.


Because I have tickets to the Switchfoot and the Police/Elvis Costello concerts coming up soon I've gotten back into their music lately and, while I've already expressed my love for Jon Foreman's EPs I have mostly lately listened to a lot of Elvis Costello and, I must say, that his gift for melody and for inventive song and chordal structure is really extraordinary. I have long thought "Couldn't Call it Unexpected" from Mighty Like a Rose was a prime example of this but I just lately came to love the album All This Useless Beauty. It is just packed with beautiful songs. And if you haven't heard For the Stars, his duet album with opera singer Anne-Sophie Von Otter, you're missing something truly special.

I have also enjoyed Bethany Dillon and Matt Hammitt's worship album In Christ Alone. Meant to be more a modern hymns album than a praise and worship album it takes a number of songs by Keith Getty and others and puts them in a more modern setting and does a credible job with them. Some of the tracks come across as sub-standard versions of very popular songs (the title cut, or "How Deep the Father's Love" for example) but others, most notably Getty's "Jesus is Lord" which is transformed to a hip, new uptempo version, work really well and gives me a new appreciation for the song.

Finally, in the flurry of new and old music that I've been enjoying, I'm ashamed to say that it took me a couple of years to finally pick up the amazing Before the Daylight's Shot by Ashley Cleveland. I should have known better since her previous album, the live You Are There, is one of my all-time favorites. It's just that she doesn't release albums' very often and so I forget just how good she (and her guitarist/husband Kenny Greenberg) is. Amazing stuff. Meant to be played loud.


I continue to work through DVDs and I'm getting near the end of both Season 6 of 24 (which is much better than I was lead to believe based on the "24 is losing it" buzz that I heard last season) and Season One of Veronica Mars which also I'm enjoying quite a bit. I must also admit to watching American Idol and I have to say that, while David Archuletta got off to a strong start, David Cook is really bringing it lately … dawg.

I also watched the film Enchanted last weekend and it was wonderful. It dragged only the slightest bit near the end but, as a send up of Disney animated classics it is really great. The songs are catchy and the effects are quite impressive. And Amy Adams is just too likeable as the soon-to-be princess. Even if there are no kids in your house, this one is too much fun to miss.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Together We Worship - again

A few days ago I wrote about The curriculum about worship that Laura and I wrote and recently published. Today it got mentioned in Dan Beerens' Nurturing Faith blog.

Thanks for writing about it, Dan!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Jon Foreman – Fall and Winter

Switchfoot has been an interesting band to follow over the years. They got their start in San Diego and were signed by Charlie Peacock to his fledgling Re:think label around ten years ago. Charlie told me over dinner one night (yeah, I had to work that in) that he didn't produce their album because he didn't want to screw it up. He thought they were pretty cool and I did too. Then they hit the big time by placing songs from their album in at least one high profile movie and they've expanded their band from three to five full time members. They've solidified their sound and they've recently left their label to go indie. I wrote nice things about their latest album, Oh Gravity, in this blog before.

I've been impressed with the way Jon Foreman, lead singer and principal song writer, doesn't go for any obvious CCM-type images even though that would have been a safe way to go early on. Their music is fun, challenging and interesting. I was excited to see that they're coming to Calvin College for a concert next month. I've already got my ticket.

What I found most interesting lately, though, is that Foreman has begun releasing the first two of four EPs named after the seasons. Initially released as online downloads, the first two were gathered together in a 2-CD set and released to stores a little while ago. I got the Fall and Winter set last week and I'm quite impressed. These are songs that clearly wouln't work well in a full band setting. Most of these songs are Foreman's acoustic guitar, his voice, and limited other instruments like a cello, a small brass group or a bass clarinet, of all things. The focus in front and center on the vocals and the songs and they're really fine. Foreman's voice isn't the kind of voice that gets me excited – he hits all the notes but there is an untrained quality to it that, while it oozes authenticity, isn't all that great when stripped of the trappings of the band. But in this case it works and it works well. A hat tip to Foreman and executive producer and guest keyboard player Charlie Peacock – he said yes this time – for giving us an album that sounds both well produced and yet makes us feel like we're eavesdropping on the way Foreman sounds when he's alone in his home.

With an album like this the sound of it could easily run together and sound the same after a while but I listened to both of these in succession this morning with my ipod and I found that the arrangements are different enough (and the albums are short enough) that I didn't have a problem with that at all. I found myself enthralled by these EPs and I can't wait for Spring to show up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

There is a Light that Shines in Darkness

Over the last few years I have often found myself awake at night (or at least very early in the morning) and I am thankful for my ipod. I pop in my earbuds and listen to music for a while. Sometimes I fall back asleep but other times, like this morning, I just lie there and listen for a while. I put the ipod on shuffle and enjoy the random set of music, all of which I like.

This morning one of the songs that popped up was Phil Keaggy's "All There is to Know" from his album Crimson and Blue. The emotional and lyrical centerpoint of that song for me is the line "There is a light that shines in darkness." Reflecting on that line this morning made me think about the book of Judges and how that book shows how the people of Israel drifted away from God. In that book we have a series of events all of which start with Israel forgetting about God and ending with a deliverer, a "judge," rescuing them from their bondage only to find themselves drifting away again. And things get worse and worse – by the end of the book we have two stories that show that even the Levites, the priestly tribe, had forgotten the way that God wanted them to live.

As that book ends things are in pretty bad shape. But then we read the little book called Ruth, a book in which we see that there is a light that shines in darkness and that light shines from Bethlehem. There is still at least one person, Boaz, who is honorable and who will redeem Ruth, not because of anything that she has done, but because of who she is. I like that book. I like thinking about what it might have been like between Ruth and Boaz. I find myself wondering what there was about Ruth that made Boaz notice her. I find myself wondering why God chose to bring in an outsider, Ruth from Moab, to continue the line of Judah which would become the line of Christ. The book of Ruth reminds me that even if things look grim God will not forsake us – not because of what we have done but because we are His people. These are the thoughts I had because I used my iPod this morning.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Worship Curriculum for 4th – 6th Grade

About three years ago the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship suggested that Laura and I might consider writing a curriculum that Christian elementary schools could use to teach worship. We took up that challenge and, over the course of that summer and the following school year, created the curriculum, Together We Worship. This week, we got our copies of the final product, now published by Christian Schools International.

I have fond memories of writing this curriculum. That summer Laura and I discovered the joys of walking out to the pier on the south side of the Holland channel, near the lighthouse. It was on those walks that we hammered out the ideas behind this curriculum. One of the great challenges was that we could assume very little with respect to what the children had experienced about worship. Worship services around North America can be quite different and we didn't know if these children were in churches that practiced a very traditional type of worship, a very contemporary form of worship or something in between. In addition, we didn't know what kind of training the teachers would have in thinking about worship so our notes had to be fairly extensive on the content of the lesson. On the other hand, because this was to be used by professional educators we could assume more teaching skills than we can when we write for Sunday School teachers. Another complication is that for other curricula we had written we had been given a format to follow – we had no such format for this unit because it would be a stand-alone curriculum and we really were starting with a blank slate. Those discussions happened often along the Holland channel and on the shores of Lake Michigan. We could jump in the car and get there in about 7 minutes from our house and that was a great opportunity to explore a part of Holland that we really hadn't explored before.

After our initial work was done the Institute invited 15 Christian schools from around North America to participate in a day-long workshop around our work. That consultation day happened almost exactly two years ago. Here is what I wrote at the time. We asked each school to send two teachers (often one classroom teacher and a music teacher) to spend the day with us and then to use the curriculum in their school and to send us feedback on what worked and what didn't. That day was great. Many of the teachers sent us good feedback and we revised the curriculum and then waited to see if we could get it published. Thanks to the work of a number of people the curriculum is now available in print and on CD. Special thanks to John Witvliet, the staff at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the teachers who helped us revise this work. It is great to finally see it in print!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Watching and Listening winter update

Between commutes that, because of the weather, are often twice as long as they typically are (which means that most days I've been on the road for at least two hours) and some sort of cold/flu/virus that I'm fighting I've been listening to a lot of new music lately. I've also caught up on some DVD watching since Christmas. I tend to have a couple of series going at the same time. I almost never watch more than one episode of a show in one sitting so it takes me months to get through a series and usually days to get through a film. While that can blunt the impact of the film I typically don't have a couple of hours to give to one film at a time so I do what I can. I'm still in the process of getting to know most of these albums on this list so I haven't formed final opinions on but I'm working on it.

Indelible Grace V: Wake Thy Slumbering Children (CD) – Kevin Twit has once again assembled a wonderful batch of artists (like Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Jeremy Casella, Andrew Osenga and others) who have rewritten old hymns to give us the fifth in his Indelible Grace series. This set is perhaps a little less up-tempo than previous editions but on my second listening I realized how many beautiful melodies there are on this album and it has grown on me ever since.

Joni Mitchell: Shine (CD) – I'm still trying to figure this album out. Mitchell makes an, at times too strident, album about the environment which has only a little lyrical subtlety but her jazz/folk sensibilities and her amazing voice still come through. It is the opening instrumental, "One Week Last Sumer" though that really grabbed my attention.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova: The Swell Season (CD) – I have heard from more than a few people that I need to see the film Once. The song "Falling Slowly" won an academy award for best song and Bethany got me to listen to the song and the album. This album has really caught my attention. It is full of emotion and careful, delicate instrumentation which set off the sometimes fragile voices in a way that really heightens the drama of these songs. I have played it multiple times a day for the past week and I just can't get enough if it.

Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken: Ampersand (CD) – They've appeared on each other's albums for years but this is the first time husband and wife Derek and Sandra have actually made an album (or in this case and EP) together. Technically it isn't released for two months but with a pre-order you get an immediate download and it has been a lot of fun to listen to. My immediate favorite track was a cover of Dylan's "If Not For You" with more than a little George Harrison influence.

Tift Merritt: Another Country (CD) – I had never heard of Merritt until her song "Broken" showed up on a Paste Sampler. I was so impressed that on the day the album was released I downloaded it from iTunes. While "Broken" still remains a favorite I am impressed with the rest of the album as well and I'm looking forward to hearing it more so that I get to know the other songs too.

Heroes: Season One (DVD) – I finished the first season of Heroes and enjoyed it more as the season came to a close. This is a smart, quirky show. I understand that the strike-shortened second season didn't quite deliver like the first one did but I'm willing to hang in there with them for a while because I really enjoyed the first season.

Firefly: The Compete Series (DVD) – I had not heard of Firefly until my daughters gave the DVD to me for Christmas. This series only lasted for a short season (11 eposodes plus three that never aired) but, just as it was being canceled it really got going well and the last three unaired episodes are among my favorite. The plot was continued in the feature film Serenity which I now have to see.

Across the Universe (DVD) – This Julie Taymor directed film based on the Beatles song catalog was an ambitious idea – how do you make a coherent plot out of a series of songs that were composed without any such plot in mind? The result is mixed. There are times in the film that work really well, like the prom dancing to "Hold Me Tight" or Uncle Sam pointing and saying "I Want You." There are also many things that seem to be there simply because there was a song that might work. After watching it and all the DVD extras I'm about ready to watch it again. My son tells me that he thinks it gets better on repeated viewings. I think that the plot will become clearer and I'll probably catch a lot more so I'm looking forward to seeing it again. The soundtrack, which I've had for a while, makes a lot more sense in the context of the film. They did a nice job of reimagining the music in the context of the film.

Bones: Season One (DVD) – It has taken Laura and me over two months but we're nearly done with the first season of the detective series Bones and we're really enjoying it. The characters are becoming more developed and the cases are varied enough to keep it interesting. I'm occasionally annoyed that Temperance Brennen, the lead character, can tell amazing amounts of things about someone from simply looking at a bone fragment but I guess if I'm willing to let characters fly around in a spaceship in Firefly I can live with a little suspension of disbelief in Bones. I like the interplay between the characters and mystery aspect of the show keeps me guessing.