Friday, 16 December 2011

Is religion a force for good?

I just read that Christopher Hitchens has died. I'm not familiar with his books, but I can see how they might have generated huge interest, especially with titles like How Religion Poisons Everything. This clip of his debate with Tony Blair last year is on the BBC's most watched list today.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

"There was never a time when it was appropriate for Jesus to play the saxophone"

So says Conrad Gempf, as he asserts that the popular What Would Jesus Do? way of thinking might be a little bit misleading.

Personally, I can see the WWJD slogan being helpful in some situations. I wore one myself, for parts of my teenage years. The most frustrating thing was that you couldn't apply it to a situation where you'd done something wrong.

Q. "What would Jesus do if he was about to get told off for not doing his homework?"
A. "Jesus would have done his homework"

It's true that we can only hope to imagine what Jesus would have actually done in most of our circumstances. But I think it's still helpful to ask the question. In fact, I agree with Gempf when he says "What's good about it is that it does get people asking a question about what they're doing, looking at it from another perspective. Most people don't ever do that. But the right question is: what did God create me to do?"

WDGCMTD? isn't quite so catchy of course.

That's from the BBC, by the way.

Friday, 25 November 2011

New album, new website!

My new (and first) album of Christian music, "Hope for the world", has just been released and is on sale at Illuminate Christian book shop, Shrewsbury. If you're not local to Shrewsbury and you'd like to buy a copy, leave me a comment below.

It's an album of 13 mostly original tracks, with a couple of re-worked hymns and a Tim Hughes cover (with thanks to Kingsway, who let me use the track without paying royalties). Anyway, it's only £10, and all of the proceeds will go to Shrewsbury Youth for Christ.

To infuse yet more excitement into the situation, I've also just launched a new music website.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The King's Sp**ch

We recently borrowed a DVD of The King's Speech, which was rated 12 due to "strong language in a speech therapy context" (I don't think I've ever seen that exact criterion before). Anyway, the language certainly was rather strong in places, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable. However, it seems I'm in the minority.

For a long time I've suspected that most people are actually quite comfortable with just about all the words we refer to as "profanities", and now a High Court judge has ruled that there should be no law against hurling obscenities in public because people just aren't offended by them any more.

As a student of English Language, I find the whole issue of what's considered "bad language" fascinating. I mean why, exactly, is the word bottom less offensive than many of it's more concise synonyms?

There's also a difference between hearing a post-toe-stub cuss and actually being sworn at.

And then there's blasphemy - the worst of the lot, and yet tolerated to a much greater extent, especially on TV.

A while ago (2000), the ASA did a research project on swearing, which makes interesting reading. One of it's main components is a rank scale of the perceived severity of specific words (if you're interested it's on page 13. If you want to avoid reading it, it's on page 13). It also reveals that 38% of people think swearing is more acceptable on Channel 4 than BBC 1, among other delicious statistics.

Also, saying "Jesus Christ" is apparently more offensive than saying "crap", but not quite as offensive as "balls".

What do you think?

Friday, 18 November 2011

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What's influencing you?

[First published in the Shrewsbury Chronicle 3rd November 2011]

Recently, in preparation for our ‘Rock Solid’ lunch-time and after school clubs, we performed an experiment on a jelly baby. Next time you buy a packet, try this out: take one of the sweets and plop it into a bottle of water. Leave it there for about a week. Slowly, the jelly baby absorbs the water until it becomes a grotesque bloated baby blob bobbing around in the bottom of the bottle (try reading that out loud). The point of all this? To get the message across to the young people we work with that it’s easy to soak up influences from our surroundings.

How often does a discussion about television, video games or the internet bring out a statement along the lines of, “it’s a bad influence on the children”? We are rightly concerned about the effect mass media has on impressionable young minds. As a child, I was a regular reader of The Beano comic. While I do accept responsibility for my actions, I’m sure it was reading the antics of Dennis the Menace that led me to put a drawing pin on Tom Poole’s chair during a maths lesson.

It may be true that young people are particularly vulnerable to the messages that creep out of our screens, but are we all keeping track of what’s influencing us? Saint Paul instructed the early Christians in Rome “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV). He believed that the attitudes of Christians should be totally different from the attitudes of the culture that surrounds them. That’s only possible if we allow God’s Spirit to influence us more than anything else.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Friday, 28 October 2011

I am the 80,038,090,107th person to have ever lived

Where are you?

This nifty widget also told me that people in my area have, on average, more than one mobile phone contract. Astounding.

Monday, 24 October 2011

On nuns and commitment

I've got mixed opinions about nuns and monks, at least, in the traditional sense. I mean, they do a whole lot of great stuff; working with the poor, educating children, praying etc. It's just that the concept of nunhood does seem to foster the incorrect opinion that a married, full-time employed Christian is somehow less committed to God than a single, full-time ministering nun. Basically that it creates a false hierarchy of holiness.

Mind you, this is almost entirely due to the fact that nuns have to wear special costumes. If it wasn't for that, people might see that they are not walking stereotypes, but rather real people who have devoted their lives to serving a real saviour. (Q. Why do they wear those robes? A. Force of habit.)

 Apparently the number of young nuns in the UK is growing, and the BBC is airing a documentary called, originally, "Young Nuns." Sadly, even that great institution (the BBC, not the Church) got all confused over the basic idea of Christianity. Their article features a nun called Sister Jacinta, "[who] had been a nun for eight years before taking final vows and has now made a lifelong commitment to Christ."


Friday, 14 October 2011

Dance/techno worship

This epic remix from Tim Simmonds's church has been used in a couple of Sunday morning worship times. Would it go down well with your church? (HT: Phil)

Consuming fire (DEMO) by Tim Simmonds

I'm not the enormousest fan of dance music, but I love this track. I mean, if it were released on iTunes I would buy it. However, if I decide to use this in worship on Sunday I'm not sure it will be similarly appreciated.

At Hope Church, we have a range of age groups. In churches like ours, worship teams are not likely to be very adventurous becuase at least one cohort of the congregation is sure to be offended. Sticking to the status quo is much more acceptable (definitely not sticking to Status Quo though). But if we want to engage with culture, then our music has to follow the culture. Our creative output should reflect today's styles and trends. Who knows what we're singing now that will cause widespread cringing in the next generation. Blessed Be Your Name could well be the next Shine, Jesus, Shine.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Questions for church leaders

(HT: Charles)

1. When was the last time I heard from God? Am I doing what he called me to do?

2. What should our church be known for in this community?

3. Are we really focusing our time, money, leadership, prayer behind the things that will produce life change and community impact?

4. Is our church growing both spiritually and in numbers?

5. Is there a clear path to help people take steps in their faith with the ultimate goal of them becoming fully-devoted followers of Christ? (ie disciples)

6. What does a disciple of Christ looks like?

7. Are we empowering the people of God to do God’s work?

8. Are we developing leaders?

9. Do believers see their ministry happening only at the church or have they become missionaries to their families, their neighborhoods, their workplaces, their schools, etc

10 Do I have the right leaders around me to accomplish the vision?

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation

Hopefully reading will be one of the activities to fill the void once occupied by a playstation. I've already read about four books in a month, which might be a record (and one of those was Lord of the Flies, after which I just sat in a stupor for 3-4 days). Anyway, another of those books was Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation; An A-Z of the Christian Life, by the stalwart Adrian Plass.

This is the kind of book I like; essentially light-hearted and comical, but in a beautifully organised alphabetical arrangement. It's the literary equivalent of a Toblerone bar; you snap off small segements for easy digestion, but find that it's hard to stop at just one. At points Plass is deliciously funny, as in the following entry:

When I survey - favourite hymn of Christian architects

Jeff Lucas commends the book on its reverse - "Subversive but not destructive, cutting but never unkind, the man helps me want to remain a Christian. Brilliant, fun, laugh-out-loud stuff."

Jeff highlights what, for me, was the big problem with this book. Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation walks a very fine line between lightly poking fun at some of our quirky religious traditions, and actually undermining Christianity. The minute you start making humorous observations you start to become cynical, and this is what seems to happen.

Now I'd say Adrian has every right to be cynical about the role of pews, jargon and religious tradition (in a similar vein to the work of Dave Walker). Want to take the mick out of church notices? Go ahead! Prosperity gospel? Lampoon away! But just occassionally the jibes extend to things that are actually important. This is probably best illustrated in this definition:  

Defying Gravity - (2) what at least a few of us so-called followers of Jesus need to be doing. Christianity is far too serious not to be laughed at from time to time.

The extent of my uncomfortableness with this statement would depend on what Adrian means when he talks about "Christianity". If he's referring to the pomp and tradition that has sadly worked its way into the life of the Church then yes we can laugh at it. If, however, Adrian is saying that following Jesus is too serious not to be laughed at then I very strongly disagree.

Firstly, I disagree with the logic. I think we should laugh at things that aren't serious, not things that are. If I started laughing at funerals people would rightly write me off as insensitive. Some things deserve to be taken seriously, although that's getting harder in a culture where we will laugh at anything (is there any way of prosecuting the people who circulate post-tragedy jokes?). I made it one of my new year's resolutions to be more sincere.

Secondly, if we, as Christians, don't take Christianity seriously, what hope has anyone else got?

I've read other Plass books before and found them really helpful as well as entertaining. I think Adrian is a great guy as well as a good author, and I believe that he actually does take following Jesus very seriously. Maybe, like the rest of us, not quite as seriously as Jesus Himself.

Monday, 26 September 2011

I'm getting rid of all my video games

Well, not quite all, but I'll explain that later.

I've blogged a few times about video games, and even listed five reasons why they should be appreciated. Now I'm culling my collection of PS1, PS2, PC, DS and GameBoy games down from about 70 to under ten. This was a really difficult decision to make, but in the end, I think it's what God wanted me to do, so I'm doing it. To help me explain, I'm going to pretend you're asking me questions...

Q. You're getting rid of some old games, what's the big deal?
Video games have been a big part of my life for the last 14 years or so. I must have spent thousands of hours playing them. I could spend hundreds of hours playing a single game if it's good enough, and there were lots that I really, really enjoyed. This is not like giving up TV, which was easy and painless because I didn't care about TV. I'm giving up doing something I love doing.

Q. So why are you doing it?
I still don't think video games are bad, but I think they've been a big distraction in my life, and at times stolen my heart away from following Jesus and being fruitful. For a while God has been leading me to make this decision.

Q. How do you know this is what God wants?
I've suffered for years with what I'll term gamerguilt; a lingering feeling of guilt that stems from doing something that other people consider a waste of time. I don't agree with making people feel guilty for how they choose to spend their leisure time, and I have had to convince myself that it is actually ok to play games. However, recently I've been thinking about my love of gaming more, and it's often sprung into mind in situations like prayer meetings, quiet times, sermons and worship. I'm starting to learn that if you can't stop thinking about an issue when you're meeting with God, then He might be trying to tell you something about it.

Q. So why aren't you getting rid of them all?
Ok, well out of the ones I'm keeping...
- 2 are actually music-making programmes
- 3 are games for the dance mat
- at least 1 isn't really mine to give away
- 1 is a favourite for me and Lis to play together (it's Super Monkey Ball 2, by the way)
- 1 is Final Fantasy VII. I'm keeping it more for the historical significance, and a few childhood memories.

Q. What are you going to do with the extra time?
It's not like playing games was all I did. Maybe eight hours per week average, but now that's eight hours I can spend doing other things. Hopefully some more song writing and recording, more reading books and more times with Jesus.

Q. Are you giving up games for good?
No. I enjoy playing games socially, and I won't stop Wiiing with mates, or Monkeybowling with the wife. I'm not going to buy any more consoles or games though from now on.

Q. Until when?
Maybe a few years. Maybe forever. I guess it depends on how it goes. If there are huge benefits to cutting gaming out of my life, then would I ever want it back?

If you are a gamer yourself, the last thing I want to do is pour on the gamerguilt. However, if you really idolise video games (and the industry tries very hard to persuade you to idolise them) then you need to do something about it. To be honest, I am still gutted at the thought of saying goodbye to Morrowind and Star Wars Battlefront II, but if it brings me closer to Jesus then it's totally worth it.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #1

Did you guess? Were you right? Here it is...
#1: Casting Crowns, Casting Crowns

That's right, Casting Crowns have taken the top spot with their self-titled debut album. Having written such beaming reviews of numbers four to two I'm wondering how to make this one sound like it deserved to beat them all. Of course, this is my personal list and I don't need anyone to agree, but I'd find it hard to believe that any rock-tolerating Christian would not love this record. It's a beast.

Casting Crowns are a challenging band to listen to at times, not because the music isn't wonderful, but because the songs they write often probe pertinent issues within the Church, as you can see simply by reading the title of the first track: What if His People Prayed? You might call this a sneaky tactic - writing a very provocative piece about what the Church could accomplish on its knees and then setting it to the most fantastically thrilling music ever conceived. You can't not listen. You can't listen and ignore the words. It's a trap! What a great trap to fall into though, and it's cleverly executed in track 2 also; If We are the Body. Some more great lyrics here to motivate us to reach out, like, "Jesus paid much too high a price for us to pick and choose who should come". (Before you accuse the band of being all self-righteous, you should listen to Stained-glass Masquerade on their Lifesong album. While you're there, you may as well listen to the whole album. It's great too.)

So what treats are in store for us next? Ah yes, we have The Voice of Truth, a song with similar impact to the Footprints in the Sand poem, but without the feeling of having heard it a billion times before. I guess you could listen to it a billion times though if you wanted that feeling. Anyway, it's like a power ballad but less corny because it's actually all entirely true. It's a similar story with Who Am I, not connected at all to the Jackie Chan film, this is a song about the incredible fact that God cares about us.

I love this album because it combines eternal Biblical truths with a refreshing blend of genuine human experience. The song American Dream is a story about a workaholic guy who ruins his life trying to get rich. Hope I didn't spoil the ending for you. And Here I Go Again is about the common experience of trying to find a way to tell a friend that God loves them, but lacking in both time and courage. The melodies of these songs are so well crafted you'd think they had always existed somewhere and Casting Crowns just dug them out of the ground.

The second half of the album is more worshipful. Praise You with the Dance is a brilliantly fun tune that turns into a full-blown ceilidh at one point. Another great thing about this album is that the female backing vocalist (name, anyone?) takes a lead in some songs. Variety is the oft-neglected spice of Christian music. You can tell that she's having a ball with this foot-tapping number.

Glory is a song that you could sing in church on a Sunday, but you'd struggle to get the band to sound anywhere near as good. There's a fantastic breakdown section with some sweet harmonies. In fact, this album is full of really delicious harmonies, and Life of Praise is no exception. If my life were a movie, this could be the song that plays over the credits.

At the end of the album the whole mood changes. Imagine you've just been at a huge rock concert, leaping about and sweatily chanting and whatnot. As you're driving back from the gig you suddenly realise the lead singer is sitting on the back seat. He pulls out an acoustic guitar and begins gently strumming, serenading you as you journey home. That is what Your Love is Extravagant is like. A stripped-back, soft and beautiful serenade. Only they're not singing to you of course. The album ends with a quiet tribute to God's astounding love. It's superb.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #2

#2 - Revolution, YFriday

After far too long, we have reached the penultimate place on the podium. The silver medal of my Christian Rock awards is presented to another British ensemble by the name of YFriday. This album packs one heck of a punch. It's got all the noise and energy of a revolution with the bloodshed. Ken Riley (lead singer) may not be as widely recognised as Ché Guevara, but I'd dare to say that his songwriting abilities are far superior.

Ken starts off by showing his mastery of the simple-but-effective rock riff, with which Rise begins. This tune has so much buzz about it that you wonder what the four Geordie musos have been imbibing. We get the answer in the chorus: "Love, love is the drug I'm feeling. Love, love is the drug I'm dealing." Aha. I've listened to most of Yfriday's albums several times, and I reckon this one is lyrically the best. Track 2, Someone I Can Live For, sums up Christianity neatly and profoundly.

Revolution is the third song in the list, and if your roof was already raised, this one will send it into orbit. You don't need a singing voice to be able to join in for the chorus, you can just shout your head off. This song is a very loud prayer for God to change the world, or maybe I should say carry on changing the world. Either way, listening to this makes you really excited to be a part of it.

If by this point in the album you find yourself shattered, then you should probably sit the next one out. Hands Up is a song that makes me want to employ the phrase "barn-storming", even though I never use it and don't really know what it means. Hands Up is a praise anthem that would get Dr. Rowan Williams jumping out of his armchair.

Finally there's a pause for breath, as 13 (based on 1 Corinthians 13) takes to the stage. No prizes for guessing that this song is about love. I might have given you the impression that this tune is gentle, relaxing and soothing. Sorry, it's not. It's not quite as full-on as the first four, but it does get fairly heavy. And once 13 is over, the tempo goes straight back up courtesy of the exhilarating Saved the Day.

It's only at track 7 that the moment really slows down. Lift is a tender worship song, one of the kind that feature more in YFriday's other albums, but unique on this one, like a pearl surrounded by great big chunky rocks.

The next proper boulder of a song comes in the form of Start of the Summer, a testimony set to music. Music you can mosh to. And if you've got any energy left, you'll be jumping up and down to Shine2 after that.

The album winds down again right at the end with Lament. There's a great progression in the lyrics of this song; the singer describes feeling hollow and alone, until, dramatically, "night explodes in symphony" and he reaches out for God during a crescendo.

And that's it. I wonder if the plan was to leave the audience wanting more, but it seems like the band went for quality over quantity here. These 10 tracks add up to a mere 35 minutes. But these 35 minutes are well worth listening to. Everyone should buy this album.

So, there's only one post left to come. What will be number one? Any guesses?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #3

#3 - The Mission Bell, Delirious?

Any predictions on the top 3 should have included at least one of Delirious?'s ground-breaking studio albums. The only one to make it into my list is their penultimate - The Mission Bell. Undeniably the most successful British Christian rock band in the universe, Delirious? have at times come close to receiving my "slightly overrated" badge. At such times it is only necessary for me to listen to this album and the doubting Thomas within is silenced.

The album kicks off with Stronger; an odd choice in my opinion. The song progresses at a stately pace and sounds vaguely mysterious, which strikes a contrast with its triumphant lyrics - "Hallelujah, here we come". Those words could be the theme for the whole album - there's a lot of noise and general anthemic "let's do it!" kind of feeling in here. This is embodied perfectly in track 2, Now is the Time, for which Delirious? collaborated with the genius Matt Redman. This track has probably been the theme tune to every youth mission/social action project for the last six years.

Next up, it's my favourite tune - Solid Rock. With an ever-so-steady beat, and that delightfully simple yet powerfully confident blues riff, this song sounds like its name. Great choir work on here too, but the real vocal highlight comes when tobyMac turns up to rap his way through the old hymn My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.

All This Time is a more reflective, brooding sort of piece. (Did I say piece? That's what you call classical stuff, right, like Mozart and stuff. I must hold this band in high esteem.) Well, the following track, Miracle Maker, is an absolutely epic song - a classic if ever there was one. More choir here and emotive string playing. If there was a music video for this (is there?), it would certainly feature Martin Smith singing in gale-force winds, while lightning flickers in the distance. Just epic.

Here I Am Send Me and Fires Burn are in a similar vein to All This Time. The pattern of moody, tension-building verses exploding into a powerhouse of a chorus almost becomes repetetive, but the songs are so unique and sitrring that you don't really mind, or even notice.

Our God Reigns is a fascinating song. I read somewhere that they wrote the chorus first, and envisaged using it in a worship song. It actually ended up as the crux of a song about famine, AIDS, abortion and the generally shocking state of human affairs. Not exactly easy listening, but great to listen to.

That choir is still going strong as we get into track 9, Love is a Miracle. In fact, this is basically Martin Smith pretending he's in a revival tent in America in the 1960s, poetically delivering some testimony accompanied by a gospel choir. A nifty sample from "That's my king!" (google it if you need to) makes its way onto the album here.

The shortest and most rockingest song on the album is definitely Paint the Town Red. The "here we come" line from Stronger gets its own chorus. This song is like running up a mountain. Somewhere near the summit there is a small, dark and inviting cave called Take Off My Shoes which changes everything. I think this is the most beautiful song on the album - musically and lyrically. An intimate meeting with God is played out through delicate piano work and ethereal guitars. And speaking of the celestial, we finish off with I'll See You, a song for a loved one who has died. Moya Brennan's Gaelic vocals float around mistily. Martin thinks about meeting Jesus in heaven and lets out a few woohooooos. The combination works.

This whole album works very well. In fact, just writing this has given me a new appreciation for the work that's gone in. The writers, composers, performers and producers showcased on this album are worthy of a very large round of applause.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #4

#4 - So Natural, Salvador

I first came across Salvador at a Christian music event in Stoke called Passion. I'd never heard of them, and din't know what to expect, but they totally rocked my socks off. As you might have guessed from the name, Salvador are fundamentally a latin-pop-rock Christian band. Quite an ensemble too, with eight musicians credited on the CD sleeve. The Salvador sound is funky, driven by two percussion players and the best bass player I've ever seen, fleshed out with both delicate and meaty guitar sounds, rhythmic piano and a grooving horn section.

These guys are serious musicians, and their 2004 album, So Natural, is a feast for the ears. There's a lot of variety packed into 12 tracks, with songs appearing at most points of the pop-rock continuum. We kick off with Can You Feel (The Supernatural), a raucous party of a track that sets the up-beat tone of the whole album. Before too long, however, Salvador recline into This is My Life, something more reminiscent of a boy-band hit, with a cameo chorus of How Great Thou Art.

At around track five, It Comes Back to You, the serious rocking gets underway, which comes to a climax during the insane funk of For More Than Ourselves, which shows off the bands musicianship with reckless bars of 7/8 in the verse (it, like, sounds like they just missed a beat out). The contour of the album continues into some deliciously smooth pop tunes before winding right down to the title track (and, in fact, my least favourite) So Natural.

But then, suddenly, as a glorious finale, a live recording of La Palabra kicks your stereo back into action. This is the most purely latin track on the album, and is the only one sung entirely in Spanish. Having heard several infectious Spanish tunes at Passion I was slightly disappointed not to hear more on the CD, but at least I can understand the rest of them.

There is almost as much variety in the lyrical content as there is in the music. Nic Gonzales is most often heard singing about his personal relationship with God. There are moments of real tenderness and surrender amongst the partying. Heaven is a song about someone getting tired of life on earth, who keeps asking God from the back seat of a luggage-filled car "how far is heaven?" It Comes Back to You is a tuneful reminder to the listener that you reap what you sow.

So Natural is the most unique Christian album I own, and the band is quite possibly the most talented. I'd really love to see them live again at some point. Anyone fancy a trip to Nashville?

Friday, 19 August 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #5

So, whatever you define "Christian music" as, I'm a fan.

Q. What's better than music?

A. Music about Jesus.

Now I wouldn't say I was an ardent follower of the Christian music scene, or totally submerged in Christian culture, but I've listened to a fair amount of the stuff and now the time has come to blog my Top 5 Christian Rock Albums.

Note that by 'Christian Rock' I'm not talking about Creed and other vaguely-Christian-philosophy-based-heavily-distorted-guitars-screaming-yeah-yeah music, but I'm talking generally about music by Christian bands. And I'm doing a post on each, so here is...

#5 - The Beautiful Letdown, Switchfoot

This is probably the least explicitly Christian album in my list. I'm not sure the word 'god' is sung very much, if at all, which is strange for Christian rock. This is intentionally a very accessible piece of work. It's also very wonderful. If you want proof of both it's mainstream popularity and high quality, look no further than the Spiderman 2 movie soundtrack (UK version), which features Switchfoot's epic tune Meant to Live.

Meant to Live is my favourite track on this CD. The lyrics, whilst not explicit, are probably more powerful than most modern worship songs. The music is equally powerful; your speakers will turn themselves up if you don't, out of respect for the rockin'. As an opening track, Meant to Live sets the bar high.

The album challenges the listener throughout. If you imagine Jon Foreman is singing at you, it can be quite stirring at times. In This is Your Life he asks "are you who you want to be?" And the suddenly more laid-back groove gives you some space to ponder the question, if you don't get distracted by lots of ethereal, electronic noises.

The challenge becomes more direct in track 5, Dare You to Move, a song that should be played in the background every time an altar-call is made. Again, this is a powerful track, almost epic, in fact. Despite the gravitas, it is probably also one of the more uplifting tracks.

The crown of feel-good on this album goes, remarkably, to Switchfoot's song about death; Gone. The epitome of catchiness, Gone tells the story of a life spent of possessions and excitement, only to find it is all absolutely worthless. While the lyrics only briefly reveal the antidote to materialism ("every second that we borrow brings us closer to a God who's not short of cash"), the overwhelming cheerfulness of this song leads you to suspect that losing everything you ever owned is actually a good thing.

The title track, Beautiful Letdown, expands on the theme. This is a ballad about a personal experience, and I would venture a guess that the "letdown" frontman Jon is singing about has something to do with wealth, fame and success. Switchfoot are, after all, a very successful group. "Easy living", sings Jon, "you're not much like the name". Instead, he is determined to "carry a cross and a song where I don't belong".

The rest of this album is great, but those five songs make it number five in my list. Go on Spotify and give them a listen. Or just buy it. In summary, these guys are like rocking sages who cram a truckload of godly wisdom into some banging tunes. What could top it?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

What is Christian music?

So in my last post I responded to the question "can you worship God to secular music?"

I didn't try to define what secular music actually is, or, for that matter, what Christian music is. But that sounds like a fairly significant issue. The author of one of my favourite worship-leader-blogs made the decision to limit his music-listening to entirely Christian material (and has also written a fantastic post on whether rock music is acceptable to God). 

So what is Christian music?

Matt Blick has set a quiz over at his blog. Read the song lyrics and then decide whether they are taken from a Christian song. It's harder than you'd expect. Then check the answers.

Here are some possible definitions of "Christian music":
1) Music written by a Christian
2) Music written primarily for use in worship
3) Music with religious lyrics that make reference to God/Jesus
4) Music that expounds Christian theology
5) Music that is written to God
6) Music that is sung by a gospel choir

Would you agree with one or more of those, or add your own?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Can you worship God to secular music?

Vicky Beeching has written (4 months ago) a piece on whether non-Christians should play in a worship band (HT: Phil (I recently found out that 'HT' means 'hat tip' - mystery solved at last!)).

Whilst that issue begs a post for itself, I was more compelled by some of the comments below. Atkins5614 (clearly a fan of diets) asks the question
What if I told you that I feel very close to God when I am listening to music played by non-Christians? Essentially, they are leading me into worship by their amazing skill. I find myself basking in the glow of God because of what they are playing. 

To which Vicky B replies
I agree... some of my most powerful times with God have been when listening to U2 or Sigur Ros. Interesting eh?? 

Very interesting indeed. Most rock-loving Christians would be quick to point out that a fair few of U2's songs are in fact about Jesus. And Sigur Ros just sound like they're singing in tongues, but that's because the frontman is, in fact, singing his own made-up language most of the time. But can their music really lead us into a 'powerful time with God'?

I'd like to answer that question in the most annoyingly helpful way I know; by asking another question...

What is music?

Music is an amazing product of human beings harnessing properites of the physical world, i.e. Physics and Maths. If I create a sound wave with a frequency of 440 Hertz and stop that sound at equal intervals I am actually playing the note A repeatedly. The most beautiful symphony can be stripped down into waves, vibrations, frequencies etc. just like a rose is actually a combination of different types of atoms.

What I'm trying to say is that music is a part of God's creation. As such, it has the ability to stir our spirits to worship Him, much the same as seeing incredible views out of your airplane window. <This is a link you really need to click by the way.

Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring can be just as soul-stirring as that view across the Himalayas, even if the orchestra playing it are out-and-out atheists. So yes, I'd say that 'secular' music can lead us to worship God.

However, I haven't yet mentioned Music's long-time companion - a certain Mr. Lyrics who likes to show up almost anywhere Mme. Music makes an appearance. Many times I've asked myself "Why do I like In Christ Alone so much? Is it because of the tune or the lyrics?" Never has the answer to any question been so obviously 'both' since the whole Preach the Gospel Vs Acts of Kindness discussion.

So, yes, while a particular harmony might stir your heart to worship God - a stirred heart has to overflow (like a too-vigorously-stirred mug of coffee), and that overflow is more likely to be a chorus of How Great is Our God than a rendition of Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fox-eye view of London Riots

I've been devouring a lot of the BBC's content on the recent riots in London and other English cities. There are a lot of comments and opinions swirling round my head, but for now I'd just like to point out a few things that struck me while watching this report from Fox News.

1) Fox News is using dramatic footage that I haven't seen on any UK-based website. Where did they get that? Why hasn't the BBC got that video of a protester getting whacked?

2) Fox plays all the clips with sound. And at times shows two clips simultaneously - with sound, behind the reporter's prattle. Lots of noise heightens the appearance of utter chaos.

3) Fox shows a small-girl-crying clip.

4) Fox refers to the shooting of a man in London on Monday night as "The 1st death of the riots". This is either depressingly pessimistic, or is just insensitive sensationalising.

Thank goodness the BBC isn't like Fox, or half of London would have fled for their lives by now.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Resolution #1 in the bag

In January I blogged my New Year's Resolutions. It was about time, I said, that I learned how to drive an automobile. I've been having lessons since February, and last week I passed my test! Apparently I'm a really annoying person because I passed first time, albeit with 12 faults.

My examiner (who, to be fair, tried to put me at ease) said my main problem was over-cautiousness. He went so far as to call me a Nervous Nelly. I would have preferred Nervous Nigel myself, but either way I must have been fairly trepidatious. I've never seen my leg shake so much. Thank goodness it was my left leg, otherwise things would have been even trickier.

Anyway, the result is the main thing. The world is now literally my oyster.

My other resolutions are more work-in-progresses. I think I'm being more sincere, but I've temporarily given up on getting up at 7am, just while I recover from the Summer Term. It's all good.

Thursday, 21 July 2011


A lot of people seem to have issues with the increasing amount of Americanisms creeping into our English usage. All those seasons of Friends and CSI that get broadcast 24/7 are affecting the way we talk. I mean, out of the 30 hours of TV we watch every week, oftentimes the majority will be US-produced. You do the math. Like, go figure.

This list of 50 notable Americanisms caught my attention. The responses are more interesting than the phrases themselves. These are some reactions of the British respondents to American vernacular:
- "It infuriates me"
- "It makes no sense ... my pulse rises"
- "The one I can't stand is..."
- "It makes me cringe no end"
- "The word I hate to hear is..."
- "I was thoroughly disgusted"
- "It makes me shudder"
- "My teeth are on edge every time I hear it" (The phrase being referred to here is, in fact, "train station")
- "I don't know how anything could be as annoying or lazy"
- "Really irritates me"
- "Just makes me shiver with annoyance"
- "What a ridiculous phrase!"
- "Hideous"
- "Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance" (What?)

Gosh. American English must be really vulgar to evoke such strong feelings of hatred, annoyance and (seriously?) vengeance. Let's find an example...

Ok, so Marcus Edwards says: "I hate the fact I now have to order a "regular Americano". What ever happened to a medium sized coffee?"

Oh yes, Marcus, how horrendous. How will you cope Marcus? Is your life a misery now Marcus? Do you have an inconquerable fear of coffee shops? Does you blood boil every time you set foot in Starbucks? The world is such an insufferable place to exist, isn't it? When people start to use vomit-inducing words like "regular". Bleurgh... Retch.

You might have noticed that I don't quite agree. Some people seem to have the ridiculous idea that English, in its current form, is "proper", and any deviation is terribly upsetting. The arrival of words like "regular" cause private uproar because they are different, and therefore they are wrong. This is ludicrous. JP Spore says it better than I could:

"English itself is a rather complicated, interesting blend of Germanic, French and Latin (among other things). It has arrived at this point through the long and torturous process of assimilation and modification. The story of the English language is the story of an unstoppable train of consecutive changes - and for someone to put their hand up and say "wait - the train stops here and should go no further" is not only futile, but ludicrously arbitrary." 

The idea that changes from outside (particularly from another country) are bad and should be resisted is the same attitude that spawns racism. In fact, I think that if you hate the phrase "touch base" because it's American, then you are a kind of linguistic racist.

So if you object to any particular words or phrases I use on this blog, then I have two words for you...

My bad.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Newfrontiers Story

I was at the Brighton Conference - TOAM - for a couple of days last week. What a fantastic two days it was! My highlight was the final evening meeting that Adrian Warnock blogs about here. As well as praying loudly for the nations (including Sweden, where Phil and family landed safely the following day) we celebrated God's love by giving, singing and dancing exuberantly. I was shattered by the end of it. Evan Rogers is a brilliant worship leader/fitness instructor. This video is from last year's TOAM but it gives you a good idea:

I went along to a seminar track on leading worship: really useful and inspiring training from Stuart Townend, Kate Simmonds and Simon Brading (I missed Dave Fellingham's).

It was also good to catch up with the Newfrontiers vision. Being in a Newfrontiers church is great, but I often forget about all the amazing stuff God is doing through the movement elsewhere. Reading about the history of Newfrontiers is exciting... from 1 to 850 churches in 43 years is quite an achievement when Christianity is supposed to be in decline.

The important bit is that it's not our achievement (or Terry Virgo's), but Christ's. Jesus deserves all the credit for what has happened so far, and I can only imagine what He might have in store for the future.

Did I mention that this was the last TOAM ever? No, but you knew that already, didn't you? Anyway, the point is this is a time of transition; a key moment in the story of Newfrontiers. It's also a key moment in the Hope Church story, as Nick takes on what Phil started a decade ago.

This is an adventure: to live for God's kingdom on earth now.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Achieving gender equality

The other day I came across this article about a Swedish school with a gender-neutral language policy. Basically, they are trying to raise the children to be unaware of their gender differences by changing the way they talk to them.

The staff are told to avoid any "masculine and feminine references". 
These words (or rather, their Swedish equivalents) are banned:

They also "read books featuring gay and lesbian couples, single parents and adopted children, instead of fairy tales such as “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” which are rife with gender stereotypes."

The comments below the article make interesting reading.

Although the motives are admirable, I think this kind of exercise is flawed. And, to be honest, a little bit disturbing. Gender is a key part of a person's identity, and by refusing to acknowledge that someone even has a gender, that person will not develop a healthy sense of identity. The point of gender equality is not that girls and boys are actually identical (and we just haven't noticed), it's that they are equal despite their differences.

My friend Phil might come across more of this when he moves to Sweden next month.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Choice and freedom

This is a response to Dave Warnock's post "Choice and Freedom of Male Headship". This is the main gist of it:

"Male Headship and Freedom of Choice for Women: they are alternatives, you cannot have both at the same time."

Freedom of Choice. That's a human right isn't it? We should all be free to choose. Most of the time, we (in the West, at least) are free to make lots of choices.

We are free to choose what to eat for breakfast.
We are free to choose what clothes we wear.
We are free to choose who we pursue relationships with.

But I believe that when Jesus calls me to surrender my all to Him, I do not have the liberty of withholding my rights.

I am free to choose revenge,
but Jesus calls for forgiveness.
I am free to choose greed,
but Jesus calls for generosity.
I am free to choose malice,
but Jesus calls for gentleness.

To follow Jesus, I must daily lay down my right to Freedom of Choice and say "not my will, but yours". I propose that this statement is therefore true:

Following Jesus and Freedom of Choice: they are alternatives, you cannot have both at the same time.

So the question that remains is "does Jesus call for elders to be male, and for wives to submit to their husbands?"

[Update 24/06/11: Please read my comment below (the second comment) for clarification of what I'm trying to say here]

Monday, 20 June 2011

Newfrontiers: Borderlands Conference

I spent a damp weekend at this lovely Welsh camp site for a meeting of Newfrontiers churches in our region. Despite the drizzle it was a fantastic few days. God is really good. Instead of writing my own review, I'm going to be lazy and just concur with the last five paragraphs of Dave's.

Interestingly, I went to a seminar on leadership where some comments were made about male/female roles so I thought I would talk about that a bit. The seminar was led by Tony Smith, whose wife Kay also spoke about training leaders. You'll soon be able to download the talk, but for now I'll have to settle for what I can remember.

Tony understands the Bible to teach that positions of governmental eldership of a local church should be held by men. He went on to say that women should be actively encouraged to develop and undertake all other leadership roles in the church.

In an interesting anecdote, he told how after a local Vineyard pastor challenged him on the issue he counted the number of women in positions of leadership (small group leaders, children and youth leaders, worship leaders etc.) The result was that there were proportionately more women in those roles in the Newfrontiers church than the Vineyard church.

Obviously every church is going to be different, but I think that is helpful in debunking the theory that women in Newfrontiers are always in the kitchen or the créche.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Engaging with the gender debate

My previous post about Newfrontiers generated this response from Dave Warnock.

The issue of gender roles is obviously a hot one, and I've decided that it's going to help me understand the issue better if I engage in some creative discussion around it. So I'm going to read some posts on the topic, and respond here.

It seems I'll be have to tread carefully though...

"I am pleased Andy has dared come through that and say he is willing to engage, although I don't think he knows quite what he is letting himself in for!"

Mm hmm. 


Tuesday, 14 June 2011


A quick search of this blog confirms my suspicion that, no, I have never published a post about Newfrontiers. The word "Newfrontiers" only appears in this post about Newday. The lack of coverage might seem surprising, considering I've been in the movement for the majority of my life. However, despite the absence of contributions from myself, you will probably not run out of things to read about Newfrontiers on the blogosphere.

Notable posts for me have been...
Phil's reasons why he's happy to be a leader in Newfrontiers, and Dave's similar list. Both guys subsequently wrote a post titled "Newfrontiers Weaknesses?" - Phil's here, Dave's here.

Terry Virgo is currently posting a series of videos on Newfrontiers vision and values.

And then there are the anti-Newfrontiers rants that sporadically appear, none of which I would call 'notable'. Hostility towards the movement usually stems from issues about gender, and while I won't dismiss any genuine concerns, nor claim that Newfrontiers is without flaw, it is a great movement to be in.

My reasons won't be much different to Phil and Dave's:
- Commitment to plant and grow churches
- Preaching the gospel
- Teaching the Bible
- Serving the community
- Being a family
- Working with the poor and needy
- Valuing the call of God
- Emphasising the work of the Holy Spirit
- (plus Paul Oakley, Stuart Townend and Phatfish - and that's just one church!)

There's a lot in there to be happy about.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Do dogs go to heaven?

This book seems quite clear on the fact that yes, you will see your passed-away pets when you reach the golden shore. The author's confidence seems to come from some vague reasoning based on creation and the goodness of God. As you can tell, I'm not convinced. Friar Jack Wintz raises a few questions, like "does God's plan of salvation only include humans?"

That's not quite the same as "is Scruffles the hamster waiting for me in heaven?"

To anyone who would answer that in the affirmative, I'd like to pose a few questions of my own:

1) If pets can go to heaven, can they also go to hell?
2) Do pets get to heaven in the same way humans do? In that case...
3) How do you know if an animal has faith in Jesus Christ?
4) Can animals repent?
5) Can animals sin? (I'm thinking of that time Scruffles chewed up the curtain. Naughty Scruffles.)
6) What about animals who lived under the Old Covenant?
7) Do lower life forms, such as insects, bacteria and plants also go to heaven when they die?
8) If there are wasps in heaven, will they still sting me?
9) What will happen when the Christian cows meet the Christian McDonald's workers?

Seriously, I don't mind people mourning the loss of a pet, but I don't think there's going to be any furry rendezvouses (well, what is the plural of rendezvous?) in the afterlife.

Let's have an opinion poll to conclude:
What are you looking forward to most about heaven?
A) Seeing Fluffy again
B) Seeing Auntie Flo again
C) Being able to fly (I hope)
D) Jesus

Why not ask the audience?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Hi Andy

Thank you for your application to audition for Britain's Got Talent series 6.

To confirm your email address and receive audition details and updates via email please click on the following link.

Good luck!
The Britain's Got Talent Team


Oh yes. I have applied. Along with (I'll hazard a guess) about 200,000 others. I'll let you know if I get an audition, but that won't be til November probably.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Since I blogged that I had a theory test, I should probably blog the result... I passed! I was most nervous about hazard perception, but it was fine really. The multiple choice was a doddle, but I had gone through every possible question the night before.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The best theory test question

I'm taking a short break from my driving theory revision - my test is tomorrow morning. Hopefully I'll get 50 questions like this (click to see it biggened):

Monday, 16 May 2011

Jesus raves

I met someone a while ago who was wearing a hat bearing the slogan 'Jesus raves'. She commented, not in an unpleasant way, that it was "probably quite offensive", but I'm not sure. If you associate raving with taking drugs and getting sloshed then I guess it's an offensive hat, because Jesus would never do that. On the other hand, if 'raving' is more about dancing, partying and having a good time, then yes - that is Jesus' kind of thing.

I was in Cambridge over the weeked, and happened to visit a church where Mike Pilavachi was speaking. He talked about how individualism is ruining our society, and parts of the church, but the antidote is living in community - like God. He explained the Holy Trinity as being an eternal dance (not his analogy, it's several hundred years old), which we get to join in.

In the Bible, how often does Jesus visit, or base a parable around, a party/feast/shindig? Quite a bit. What will happen in heaven? Endless quiet reflection and meditation? I doubt it. I'm expecting the biggest knees-up since these guys broke the record for the longest Riverdance. Occasionally, we get little previews of what heaven will be like. This is a great one:

Not only are the bride and groom being launched into the air - the rest of the crowd are dancing around them. I'd be up for more of this sort of thing in church, but unfortunately I live in England.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The dancing headmaster

This is a fantastic example of someone not taking themself too seriously. Everyone could benefit from a little dancing in the dinner hall once in a while.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Chinese TV turns 'propaganda' for three months

In July China will be celebrating 90 years of the Communist Party. To get the nation into a fittingly festive mood, they have ordered television stations to air programmes that highlight the wondrous achievements and general fantasticness of the country's rulers. They have also banned crime drama, and programmes that feature time travel.

Wouldn't want to go giving people funny ideas now, would we?

No. For the next few months all of China will be raising rice-wine toasts to their adorable government in front of equally enamoured TV sets. I find this uncomfortable for two reasons:
a) As an Englishman, I can't imagine people celebrating the government
b) As a believer in democracy, I shudder at the thought of communist propaganda

But then some Chinese blogger might be thinking very similar things about our royal wedding.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Brave New World: Utopia?

I've just finished reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It's a really interesting book, and I would say "ahead of it's time" (written in 1931), but being a sci-fi it shouldn't be a surprise. This isn't a book review. For a plot summary (with massive spoilers) you can read this post. My post will be a comment on the worlds that Huxley creates.

Brave New World takes place in a future 'utopia'. There is total social stability, there is almost no disease, very low crime, high rates of happiness and acceptance of death. However, in order to achieve this the "World Controllers" have engineered a system where humans are bred in bottles, conditioned from embryos to fulfil a predestined place in society, and kept content with doses of drugs and recreational sex.

Within this new world there is, however, "The Reservation" - a small restricted area where human civilisation continues as it did hundreds of years ago; with gods, rituals, rites of passage, solitude, conflict and squalor. John, a central character, leaves the Reservation to visit the outside world, and we see what happens when his archaic worldview clashes with this modern civilisation.

The two worlds are almost opposite, and they are both (to quote the author) insane. The choice is between happiness and freedom.

In one society there is no end to the pleasure, no uncurable strife, as long as you conform to the life laid out for you.

In the other there is pain, life is beset with troubles, but there is also freedom to be an individual.

Which would you choose?

It's hard to read this book without wondering whether the real world is heading in its direction. Is it possible to achieve happiness, contentment and peace without sacrificing freedom?

Only through Jesus.

God knew that in giving humans the gift of freedom, he was giving us the option of messing up. We are not limited to an easy life, but opened up to a life of struggles and conflict. But we have a hope! If, out of our freedom we choose Jesus, then we can have happiness, contentment, peace and freedom! And even though the pain is still here for now, it won't last forever, even death will be forgotten. The hope of spending eternity with God is better than 'utopia', because it actually exists.