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.