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Anyone following the work of musician Aaron Strumpel will know that he is increasingly dangerous and defiant of musical convention. And so he wishes to offer you a Christmas gift in the form of a three track EP, at no charge to your good or bad selves.

Yes, it features three well known Christmas tracks, and is available for free from his website (www.aaronstrumpel.com). It will also, most likely, neatly divide people into two camps – those who relish his wild, crazy, bombastic approach to writing, and those who just don’t get it, whatever the heck “it” is anyway.

I’m in camp one. I absolutely love this dude, the music he makes and the beating heart that pours out so much into his songwriting, recording and production. This very statement may cause you to distrust my musical recommendations from this day forward, but so be it – I’m a Strumpel fan, period.

The musical canvas is a fitting blend of modern and traditional, as trumpets, jingling bells, and vocal choruses are filtered through Aaron’s cacophony pedal (at least, that’s what I suspect he uses). It’s a joyful noise and it requires some adjustment to your expectations about music. Think John Coltrane and Miles Davis in some of their more free form moods and you’re on the right track. But rest assured that this “noise” is actually the fruit of much musical study and a profound growth in both knowledge and freedom of expression.

Whilst the rest of the industry tirelessly churns out rehashes of familiar arrangements of traditional tunes, or tries to convince us that more songs about Santa are helpful to our enjoyment of this most festive of seasons, Strumpel’s Christmas EP is going in my playlist next to Sufjan, Bob Dylan, Jars of Clay and some more traditional old favorites.

Thanks for the gift, Aaron – keep being wild and Merry Christmas to you.

Josh White – Achor

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Jonathan in Music Reviews
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The Western church has been extremely blessed with a strong contemporary worship community for the last two decades. We have been well provided for with bands in the vein of Delirious, Hillsong, Gateway Worship and writers such as Tim Hughes, Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin. Parallel to this has been modern hymn writing from people such as Stuart Townend, Keith Getty and company. But between those two camps there has been sparser pickings of both creative and corporately suited worship. (I’d say Enter The Worship Circle, Aaron Strumpel, John Mark McMillan, DC*B and Gungor are some of the ones operating in the wide-open creative center/fringe).

Josh White, who has been leading worship for over a decade and recently planted a church in Portland, has just released “Achor” and it sits somewhere between Enter The Worship Circle, Sufjan Stevens and the Lost Dogs – in other words, it reeks of rootsy, bluesy, folksy music that is so rooted in Americana that it is one of the most honest worship records you’ll hear all year. It sounds like this album just grew out of the ground, as acoustic guitars, layered vocals, flutes, double basses, dobros, clarinets, strings and more chorus their way through 12 tracks.

The album title means “trouble” and is a reference from Hosea 2:15 – “the valley of Achor as a Door of Hope.” There is honest reflection that considers the weight and struggle of both existence and the comprehension of God’s grace.

“I can’t seem to calculate/All the patience it must take/To love me./ You perfectly covered me/ With blood that flowed from your hands and feet/ Consume me/ You are my center you’re my song/ You have been there all along/ I’ve been swallowed up by you/ There is nothing I can do/ Yes you amaze me,” sings White on “You Amaze Me”. It is not easy to sing so honestly about our lack of standing or deserving, but it is essential to the testimony of the church.

On the other end of the spectrum is the loose and wild “Holy Ghost Revival” which calls in revival for today or the slow but grand build of “Our God is Present” which envelops the listener in sound and the majesty of God. We need to be singing these songs and receiving such a gift of songwriting for today that really connects at a cultural level with a section of the church that has utilized the contemporary worship scene but has not necessarily considered it to be their own voice in the topography of worship.

There is a lot of material on here to work with for corporate worship settings, and the decade of leading people in worship really shows in White’s songwriting and recording. There’s a space to the sound and a feeling of community worship that pervades the album.

Yes, I’m musical-crushing again – it’s been quite the year for it, and I think you’ll fall in love too.

This review was originally written for Foursquare and the album was provided for reviewing by BEC Recordings at not charge to me, or Foursquare, and no attempt was made to secure a favorable review. All views expressed are my own.

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Jonathan in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture by David VanDrunen was released recently by Crossway Books and presents a readable, comprehensive view of two-kingdom theology. I’m just a youngster in terms of theology, especially that of a reformed flavor, so I was excited to dive in with VanDrunen and stretch my brain.

The main premise is a counter to the “transformationalist” view of culture that seems to be pervasive with emergent theologians, those who ascribe to the New Perspective on Paul and neo-Calvinists (depending on your definition of neo-Calvinists). In transformational theologies, the church and Christians are about the work of restoration, as we march across creation and culture putting things back how they were meant to be before all this sin and death entered the world.

Whilst that can sound all well and good, the ramifications of that worldview are twofold:

1) When Scripture asserts that this world will be put away and a new heaven and a new earth will come, we have to reject any of the cataclysmic language that accompanies such claims. Instead, the new heaven and earth will come by a restoration to utopia.

2) VanDrunen states that when we embrace a transformationist view of culture, we cling to the work of Adam in the common kingdom rather than living in the grace of the redemptive kingdom which Christ has already won for us by living the life Adam, and each of us, should have lived. (more…)

The Bible Story Handbook by John and Kim Walton
Crossway Books, 2010

The Bible Story Handbook is a new resource for parents and Sunday School teachers wanting to clearly and correctly communicate the truth of the Bible to children. Unlike many such resources, this is not a curriculum or lesson plan, but is a rather unique tool that will assist and enrich all those who seek to communicate God’s timeless truth to young hearts and minds.

Beginning the collection off is an essay on the need for this book and the dangers of “dumbing down” Biblical stories. It is the danger of hermeneutics trumping exegesis, to use the language of Stuart and Fee’s “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth.” Though the gray area theological points of the authors shines through a little too strongly at times (in particular their views on creation and the continuation of charismata), the introduction should be essential reading for all who minister to children and have the sacred duty of teaching them about God from the Scriptures. This includes ALL parents! To sum up the concept of the book, here’s a quote:

“Though we might be able to learn innumerable things from a passage, the passage is not teaching everything that anybody sees in it.” (p.22)

The books aims to help teachers understand both what the main point of a Bible story is, and what it specifically is not. This is a really useful thing to have, especially for people less well versed in the Scriptures who may not so quickly recall other areas of the Bible that help identify the meaning of the text being studied. John and Kim Walton have provided a quick reference guide to check context, and so it is a book that can be used whether following a curriculum, or creating your own lessons from scratch.
After the introduction, the book is broken into Old Testament and New Testament, covering a lot of the narrative of the Old Testament, and then providing lesson coverage for the Gospels, Acts and Revelation. The epistles are not covered since they do not meet the requirements of narrative story. Each lesson contains the following sections:

– Lesson Focus
– Lesson Application
– Biblical Context
– Interpretational Issues in the Story
– Background Information
– Mistakes to Avoid

The lessons take up around a couple of pages each, so the material is not particularly lengthy, but is written for adults to consult and consider prior to teaching. I daresay that there will be disagreements along the way. For instance, comparing the Walton’s take on the story of Jonah with Tullian Tchividjian’s brilliant Surprised By Grace, it is clear that they hold strong opinions about the use and abuse of the text that may differ with other writers and theologians. I do appreciate their strength of conviction, but it will have to be weighed against other sources too – no carte blanche for anyone but God, I’m afraid!

I do not foresee this being a book that is allowed to gather dust – with two young sons of my own, and regular ministry to children in our home church, I will be routinely consulting this volume for a quick checkup to see if the lesson is on point, and will likely employ it in personal study and sermon preparation too! This is a unique resource to add to your collection.

A review copy was provided to me at no charge by the publisher. No attempt was made to gain a favorable review, and all opinions and recommendations expressed are the author’s own.

Music Review of Abel’s “Lesser Men”

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Jonathan in Book Reviews
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Abel are the latest band to hit the Come&Live! roster and with “Lesser Men” they are about to make their presence known. The release fits sonically somewhere between Thrice and New York state neighbors Brand New. It’s a cohesive experience to listen through the album, and one that features a lot of water. There are boats out on the waves, oceans on feet, and the watery peril of ‘Titanic’ (which might be one of the best songs I’ve heard this year). But aquatic metaphors aside, the album’s heart is forgiveness and our need to understand the vastness of God’s forgiveness and love.

Sinking into the ebb and flow of “Lesser Men”, the opening track gently draws you forward with it’s instrumental beauty and emotive/intimate vocals, only to snap you out of your reverie with the spasmodic ‘Saints’. It’s an album of contrasts, but apart from this initial punch the rest flows with an organic nature that keeps you on the journey for the full 35 minutes.

The band is able to write memorable hooks and melodies that will haunt your waking hours, and sing you to sleep at night.

I’ve struggled to find words for this review so I’m just going to tell you to download this now from www.ComeAndLive.com and experience it for yourself. Drop back in with your own thoughts and experiences, and be praying for Abel as they step into the live arena!

Musical parallels: Thrice, Brand New, Biffy Clyro

Book Review of John Piper’s “Think!”

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Jonathan in Book Reviews
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For so long it felt like there were two camps at war. The MindPeople and the HeartPeople both considered their way superior, and would critique each other at any given opportunity. I always had the inkling that something was not quite right with this division, and over the last few years have found allies in the works of Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, D.A. Carson, John Calvin, Martin Luther and other great minds whose intellect is not divided from the work of their hands, their compassion towards people and, most importantly, the work of the gospel. Rather than divided, it is the operation of a redeemed intellect that will not stop at words and thoughts but is driven thereby to action.

Now, with more clarity of thought and ease of access than ever before, John Piper has delivered Think! by Crossway Books and it is the literary equivalent of love at first sight. Here is a theology of the mind and thought that drives hard, fast and passionately towards the glory of God. The basic premise is that thinking is the wood that fuels the fire of worship of God. By thinking well, we engage more deeply with the person of God as we consider His word, and the work and person of Jesus; thus we know and love God with more passion, and likewise love our fellow man more completely than before.

Piper does a wonderful job of showing the correlation between real thinking and Holy Spirit dependence. We cannot truly know and understand the Scriptures unless He first illuminates them to us, but we are also called to think – it is not a mystical experience in the sense of overwhelming revelation that is imparted to the mind without the mind being involved. We think because God has made us to think, and in our thinking we ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand and so our thinking becomes a work of devotion and adoration – theology turns to doxology, as Piper puts it several times.

Equally compelling to the whole-person theology that Piper proposes is his great handling of texts that have been abused by anti-intellectuals across the ages. Most notably, there is correction to a misunderstanding of what is meant by being as a “little child” in order to know God. I don’t want to give it all way, because I really must compel you to read this book! For me, it is a tall, cool glass of water in the midst of a desert of oft well-meaning but ill-consequenced ideas that abandon either the mind or the heart in the pursuit of God. Let us have both, for He has made us such creatures that enjoy the benefit of both intellect and emotion!

A review copy was provided to me at no charge by the publisher. No attempt was made to gain a favorable review, and all opinions and recommendations expressed are the author’s own.

Pastor Jim is preaching a series on “Salt & Light” at Cornerstone Worship Center (Nampa, ID) and  a week and a half ago took us into Acts 2/Joel 2 wherein we find the famous prophetic statement:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
and they shall prophesy.’”

In teaching this passage, Pastor Jim referenced a phrase that he later shared was from the ministry of Jerry Cook. The phrase is “the prophetic community.” The words resonated with me; this concept that we have an identity together that is not as much about the specific things we do, but is about who we are in the eyes of God, seemed to shift around in my soul. The idea is that, whilst visions, dreams, prophecy etc. are all realities to be expected, the instances of manifestation are not the thrust of the passage.

Part of our mission as the church (which is God’s people together, and in a specific way a locally identifiable body of believers) is to proclaim and speak forth the good news of Jesus Christ, the hope of redemption in Him, and man’s need for a Savior. In a conversation with my good friend Jon Brown he stated that evangelism is the one purpose of the church that will not continue in eternity. Worshiping God, loving one another, glorifying Jesus and finding our truest satisfaction in our Maker, these things will remain. But it is appointed once to a man the opportunity to believe on Jesus. With death comes the end of decision. (more…)