This week Alastair, Matt, and I get into the issue of time and how it affects our spiritual life. I’m not gonna lie, this one was pretty fun. We jump into everything from Augustine, to the musical nature of keeping time, the various spiritual dimensions to our awareness of time and eternity, and we manage to avoid speaking about A-Theory and B-Theory, which I’m sure everyone will thank us for.
I hope you enjoy this one. And if you do, feel free to share it.
I have to confess that historically-speaking I have deplored Christmas music. (ducks) No, really, I just haven’t been the biggest fan. I liked classic Christmas hymns (“What Child is This?” Awesome!), and the occasional Jimmy Eat World song, but otherwise, I pretty much could do without it. Then a few years ago, I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. It was kind of just lost in the shuffle of the year. Like, I knew it was important. I probably understood it at a theological/spiritual level better than I ever had (Incarnation of God, Chalcedon, virginal conception v. virgin birth, etc.). Still, the experience of the season, preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas was not something I’d encountered once I got over the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood. I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (cue Peanuts Christmas special music)
The Decision In order to rectify this, I decided to listen to Christmas music the next year. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmasevery morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. I picked this album specifically because:
a. Stevens is a musical genius. His melodic, quirky, indie, whimsical-yet-pathos-filled compositions are not your average Christmas fare. For example:
b. The album has 42 songs which makes it harder to get sick of quickly. (42?! How does that even work?!)
c. Did I mention that Stevens is a musical genius?
It turned out to be a spiritually significant move for me. As I intentionally created space, embraced a disciplined rhythm to reflect on the season through the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens, I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel”, and excited about the herald of the angels, proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; the month-long, discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.
This year, I’d encourage you do something similar. It’s so easy for the rush, the bustle, the technological hustle of life to keep us so busy we’re unable to reflect on what we’re celebrating: the birth of the Godman, grace incarnate, the reunion of God and humanity in one person. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas isn’t something to scramble past, or merely survive, but rather is something to be entered in, treasured, and cultivated.
If you’re trying to think of where to start, I’d suggest the Stevens’ album already mentioned. Also, here are two more options:
Sufjan Stevens “Silver and Gold” Yes, I know this is another Stevens’ album. No, this is not a mistake. Stevens just followed up his 2006 anthology this year with an even longer album (58 tracks) filled with more classics and something like 18 original compositions. I broke my usual “no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving” rule just to check it out. Apparently I’m not alone in this as Christ and Pop Culture‘s Jason Morehead writes:
“Call me a Grinch, but there’s absolutely no reason for getting into the Christmas spirit when Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened yet (Sorry super mega-department stores with your early Christmas decorations). But I will make an exception when it comes to Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas offering, Silver & Gold.”
If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, I don’t know what else to say.
August Burns Red “Sleddin Hill; A Holiday Album” Now, I understand that many of you might like a little more testosterone around the holidays. Being a semi-metal-head myself, I know I have. In the past I’ve mostly found awesome one-song pieces of genius like Becoming the Archetype’s “O Holy Night.” This year another one of my favorite metal acts, August Burns Red, decided to save the day and put out a full album of Christmas music. So maybe this isn’t the most reverent or meditative Christmas album you’ll find this year, but with furiously festive renditions of classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Carol of the Bells” this album doesn’t disappoint Christmas-loving metal-heads.
The point is, whether you celebrate in a hipster key, or a metal one, or maybe just some old-fashioned melodies, be sure to include some Christmas music in your life this year–it just might save your Christmas.
I bought my first Anberlin album back as a sophomore in high school. Blueprints for the Blackmarket was revolutionary stuff for the Christian music scene, which is what I was primarily limited to at the time, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of their last couple albums New Surrender or Dark is the Way, Light is a Place. There were some stand-out tracks (“Miserabile Visu”, “Closer”, “To the Wolves”), but on the whole, I’d been worrying whether they lost the magic–or their coffee machine. With the release of their latest album, Vital, my fears were taken to the back shed and beat down to the sound of Stephen Christian’s lovely, raging falsetto, aggressive guitar riffs, and catchy drums. Anberlin delivered this time.
I don’t know if it’s the return of Aaron Sprinkle producing, or just a need to turn a corner, but Anberlin has recovered and produced an album that tops their magnum opus, “Cities.” In many ways this album flows naturally out of moves they made in Dark is the Way–an appreciation for and tasteful use of electronics and synth, but without the falsified feel of so much vocoder-pop playing on the radio. They’ve crafted a new sound while simultaneously returning to the angsty, guitar-driven alt-rock of “Paper-Thin Hymn” and “Feel-Good Drag.”
I’ll name stand-out tracks but honestly, this is one of those don’t-skip-a-song albums where each listen through gives you a new appreciation for a song previously ignored. The opener “Self-Starter” is a typically strong lead-in to the rest of the album. The nice thing is that it’s sustained through-out, even on the ballads. I consistently come back to “Desires” and “Other Side.” “Desires”, featured above, sounds almost like a throw-back to “Feel-Good Drag” both musically and thematically. “Other Side”, with its use of synth notes dripping with longing and low-end, bass and guitar work, reminds me of Tron for some reason, only with some emotional depth. “God, Drugs, and Sex” is a slow, but rich closer that won’t beat out “Miserabile Visu (ex malo bonum)” or “Fin”, but still carries on in the same tradition.
Lyrically, the song I’ve been thinking about most is “Modern Age.”
It reads like a commentary on some of the incoherencies and angst of contemporary, postmoderns. There is a deep desire to be known, to be loved, yet most will “Fall asleep alone. Safer then the off-chance, Of getting your heart attacked, one more time.” The vulnerability that love requires is painful, and postmoderns are reluctant to get hurt, to get burned. A generation born with that misleading but looming 50% divorce rate statistic hanging over their heads, or even more, the painful reality of growing up in one of the those homes, grows up a bit skeptical of attaining the love it deeply desires. Indeed, this skepticism about love bleeds into our other relationships–Christian sings, “Have we all hid ourselves from friends?” We’re a generation that is constantly communicating, surrounding ourselves with friends, and acquaintances, while simultaneously hiding from them. Afraid of true honesty and relational risk we camouflage ourselves, create false identities, and hide in plain sight.
The chorus though, is really what got me thinking:
Don’t we all, want to be loved? Don’t we all, write our own tune? Let our silence break tonight Don’t we all, learn right from wrong? And don’t we all, want to be loved? Let our silence break tonight
I was immediately struck by the incoherence between the desire to be loved, learning right from wrong, and “writing our own tune.” Writing our own tune is a typically modern/postmodern way of thinking about freedom and purpose. For our life to be truly ours, for the song we sing to be our own, we must have written it ourselves, without any help, so to speak. To be liberated on the modern view is to live unconstrained by expectations, commitments, destiny, fate, social conventions; there can be no moral grammar to which the lyrics of our vitality must conform–anything other than a wholly self-determined song is inauthentic.
The problem is that this is exactly what love and “right and wrong” are; morality is a grammar that provides patterns of existence within which love can flourish and grow. Love by its very nature requires restraints, fidelity, honesty, vulnerability, exclusivity, that impose a limit to the kind of tune we can write. The contradiction appears when we realize that if our lives are going to be anything more than lonely little melodies, if there are going to be deep and beautiful harmonies, we have to allow ourselves to be captured by a different kind of freedom–one that finds itself most deeply in a passionate commitment to something beyond ourselves. It’s the freedom of goodness, of truth, of living in line with the deep rhythm of reality and finding our place in the divine harmony God is writing. See, only then, only when we’ve surrendered ourselves to the truth, submitted to honesty, embraced a song greater than our own can we begin to give ourselves to each other without fear, to risk commitment, to dare to be truly known, to take off the mask–to love.
I’d like to say that Christian gets this, with his anthem-style call to “Let our silence break tonight.” While there is no explicit deconstruction of this generation’s discordant values, the call itself begins to draw us out. Truly communicating is the first step towards emerging from the self-induced isolation; breaking the silence with honesty is a movement toward true freedom and love.
This is all deeper than I intended to go in an album review. Still, identifying and giving voice to the tensions of a generation is one of Anberlin’s greatest talents. Their ability to do it on a rockin’ good album is why I keep them on repeat. If you haven’t already, go check Vital out–it’s worth your time.
Alright, so this is the one where I blow my credibility with a bunch of you: I love metal music. I’m not an expert, a connoisseur, or even an amateur. I’m just a fan. Still, I love the speed, the ferocity, the heaviness, and the creativity involved with the genre and its multiple sub-genres.
One of my favorite acts is a Christian progressive death metal band by the name of Becoming the Archetype. (Think Christ as the archetype of humanity made in the image of God into whose image we are being conformed.) They embody what I’ve been saying for the last few years: some of the most creative, theological song-writing is coming, not out of the worship music industry, but the metal and hardcore scene. With albums titled Terminate Damnation and songs like “Ex Nihilo” and “Elemental Wrath: Requiem Aeternam”, it’s obvious they don’t pull theological punches. Redemption never sounded this brutal. Thankfully they’ve been thoughtful enough to actually handle deep theology within the medium, producing complex concept albums like “Dichotomy”, which they based on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy in order to explore themes of resurrection, the knowledge of God, biology and technology. (It also features the most brutal rendition of “How Great Thou Art” you’ve ever heard.)
Now, when I learned of that the band had lost bassist and frontman, Jason Wisdom, I was worried both that the music and the message would suffer a drop-off in sound as well as theological content. (He left when his wife became pregnant. Something about wanting to be a good dad or something.) With release of their 5th full-length studio album I AM, my fears were assuaged.
In terms of sound, Christ McCane’s vocals come through loud, low, and aggressive. The clean vocals shine at times and at times, not so much. Overall, very solid. There are quite a few good technical riffs, (the opening of the title track “I AM” comes to mind), solid drumming, a few good bass-lines, and a number of heavy break-downs, even though they’ve backed off a bit from other albums. Continuing the trend off of their last album Celestial Completion, they’ve continued to place increasing focus on progressive elements. Still, it regains some of the speed, heaviness, and aggression of Dichotomy. It’s a solid metal album. The more I listen to it, the more pleased I am. My face is quite sufficiently melted.
This is not the main reason I am excited by this album. What I love most is the theological ambition driving the sound. With I AM Becoming the Archetype has attempted to do something many academic theologians no longer try: say something substantial about God.
In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as the great “I AM that I AM” (Exod. 3:14), or simply “I AM” (Yahweh). This is his specific covenant name by which Israel was to call him. In Isaiah, specifically 40-55, a section that draws on Exodus themes of liberation and redemption, God repeatedly emphasizes that “I am” the one who will redeem Israel. (Isa. 41:4; 43:25; 47:10; 48:12; 51:12) In the NT we find Jesus taking up the divine self-designation in the book of John with its seven famous “I am” (ego eimi) statements. Using prominent OT images of salvation he declares himself to be the bread of God (6:33), the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the gate for the sheep (10:7), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1). Each of these predicates symbolize some aspect or form of the salvation that Jesus brings or in fact is.
In the same vein, I AM is an extended reflection on the glorious, terrifying predicates which can be ascribed to God in his saving actions, especially as they are manifested in Jesus Christ. Check out the track list:
The Ocean Walker
The Time Bender
The Eyes of the Storm
The Sky Bearer
The Machine Killer
The Weapon Breaker
The War Ender
The Planet Maker
The Sun Eater
Now, let’s be honest, we’re not dealing with Thomas Aquinas, or Barth, or Bavinck here. This is a death metal band. Some over the top metalness is to be expected. Still, there’s something great about a band that will speak in the first person for God and utter:
Traversing the infinite
Transcending the evident
Watch as reality bends to my will
Behold in my presence
Time standing still
I am the future
I am the past
I have seen you breathe your last
The metal epicness is almost too much to bear. What I do love is that song after song we see some attribute or action of God’s, whether eternity, the act of creation, judgment, or consummation, being defined through the Son. Ending on a truly Johannine note, the refrain of the title song simply states, “I AM THAT I AM/I AND THE FATHER ARE ONE.” We know God in and through Jesus Christ or not at all.
To sum up: if you like metal, or Jesus, check out the album. Prepare for theology and epicness.
Check out the first single, “The Time Bender” below.