The Marian – Cover Reveal

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Fifteen-year-old Ethan Denby doesn’t know how he got on the Marian. He just woke up one day inside the body of its captain.

The Marian is unlike any ship Ethan has ever seen. It crawls on long, metal legs over dunes of salt in search of water, despite laws granting exclusive harvesting rights to a corrupt organization known as HydroSystems Worldwide.

HydroSystems is closing in, tensions are mounting aboard the Marian, and on top of all that, Ethan is beginning to think the dreams he’s been having aren’t completely harmless. If he doesn’t get home soon, Ethan could die inside someone else’s body in this wasteland of a world. The only way back seems to be through a place known simply as the Cloud, but how can he convince the crew to take him there when it means confronting a dangerous cult and venturing into a place where the very fabric of reality has worn thin?


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I am so unbelievably excited to finally share this story with you. The very beginnings of the idea first started bouncing around in my head while I was working on the rough draft of Alpha, so I’ve had a lot of time to pick at the edges of the story and the world it’s set in. This is going to be a wild ride, and I’m thrilled at the prospect of taking people along with me. The plan right now is for this to be a trilogy, though it could end up being only two books…or more. All I can tell you for sure is that the loose ends will be far from tied up at the end of The Marian.

Also! I need to brag on my cover designer – Denise Wy of Cover Atelier. I found her almost by accident, and I’m so glad I did. If you’re an indie author looking for good cover design, you need her cover on your book. She is head and shoulders above all the other cover designers who charge even remotely close to what she charges.

When I got in touch with Denise to start working on this cover, I had a pretty specific idea in mind. Unfortunately, the more we fleshed it out, the more I realized I’d had an idea that would never look cool when it was actually executed. So we went back to square one. I basically said “Forget everything I said. Here’s what the book’s about. Here’s the general tone. Here are a few important visual elements in the story. Do what you think would work best.”

Then she sent me two potential cover designs. They were both fantastic. I chose one and suggested some simple tweaks. She made the tweaks, and voila, I had the cover you see at the top of this post.

What’s crazy is all this happened in the span of two days.

I sent the first email on July 2. On the morning of July 3, we scrapped my original idea, and that evening, she sent me the two potential designs. On July 4, we had the final cover. I went back and checked our email history to make sure that’s true, because it still blows my mind how quickly Denise went from “let’s try something different” to two covers that would look right at home with the new releases at Barnes & Noble.

Cover Atelier, indie authors. Look her up.

So what’s next? I have a blog tour coming up, starting September 4, and it’ll run all the way up to release day on September 19. I have dates for that posted here. If you’re not familiar with blog tours, I’ll essentially be hopping around various book blogs around the web, doing interviews with the bloggers, writing guest posts, and answering questions from anyone who wants to interact in the blog comment sections. It’s going to be a blast, and I’d love to chat with you about the book on the tour.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you for now. Stay tuned for more info!

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Christian Music 2014 Mid-Year Checkup

It’s already been an incredible year for Christian music. I could limit this post just to albums released in January and February, and I’d still feel like I had a good collection of albums in the mix. It was hard narrowing down my picks for the first half of the year to only five, but these ones really rose to the top. If you want to hear more recommendations, check out the Spotify playlist on the side of this page, below the blatant shameless promotion for my novel. I’m constantly adding stuff to it. I only do one song per artist, so there are going to be some on there from entire albums that I love, and others that I think are gems on otherwise forgettable albums. Feel free to dig in and let me know what you think.

Anyway, here are my picks for this year so far:

John Mark McMillan – Borderland

John Mark McMillan has always been an artist that I appreciated, but didn’t necessarily enjoy. I loved the way he wrote and the way he never tried to sound like every other worship artist out there, but his stuff was always just a little too raw for me. Yes, over-produced music is a problem in the industry, but a little cleanup here and there never hurt anyone. With Borderland, McMillan seems to have found that balance. His voice is deep and edgy, and the instruments are heavy and dark. The music incorporates some electronic elements here and there, especially in the drum sounds, and his lyrics are just as thoughtful as ever. The best I can do to describe the album is to say Interpol and The National got together to make worship music, but even that isn’t quite right. Love At The End is a good indicator of the overall sound of the album, and it just might be my favorite song this year.

Recommended Listening

  • Love At The End
  • Borderland
  • Holy Ghost

Wolves At The Gate – VxV

Wolves At The Gate’s 2012 release Captors is one of the few metal albums I really love, and VxV takes everything that was great in their last album and improves on it. The guitars are just as heavy and melodic as ever, the choruses are big and soaring, and the lyrics are some of the boldest statements of Christian theology I’ve heard, while still managing not to cross into cheesy preachiness. VxV also features clips of sermons from John Piper sprinkled throughout. It’s an odd match, but it works well. Since they use the clips in several songs, it helps to tie the whole project together.

Recommended Listening:

  • The Father’s Bargain
  • Relief
  • East To West

Kye Kye – Fantasize

This is just a beautiful album from start to finish. The brooding synths and atmospheric vocals are great, but to me the thing that really makes the whole album is the production on the drums. In places they are absolutely drenched in reverb, but not in a way that they lose their punch. A lot of synth pop has really wimpy drum sounds, and that ends up ruining it for me, but Kye Kye turned the percussion into a strength on their sophomore album. If you haven’t listened to these guys yet, do yourself a favor and check them out.

Recommended Listening

  • Honest Affection
  • Dreams (2am)
  • People

Mike Mains & The Branches – Calm Down, Everything Is Fine

I thought this album was decent after the first listen, but the more I’ve played it, the more it’s grown on me. It’s got a great indie rock vibe with some folk and Americana influences. Also, I absolutely love Mike Mains’s vocals. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite singers in Christian music. He doesn’t have an incredible voice, but it’s unique without being weird, and it fits the band’s style perfectly.

Recommended Listening:

  • Calm Down, Everything Is Fine
  • Where Love Dies
  • Noises

Being As An Ocean – How We Both Wondrously Perish

Disclaimer: Being As An Ocean has said they’re not a Christian band, rather a group of Christians who write music about things that matter to them, and their faith matters to them a lot. So take that however you want. I do love the overall sound of the album. The vocals shift from aggressive screams to melodic singing to spoken word poetry, and the transition is never jarring. Also, they have ridiculously long and poetic-sounding song titles like “Death’s Great Black Wing Scrapes The Air,” so that’s fun.

Recommended Listening:

  • The Poets Cry For More
  • L’exquisite douleur
  • Natures

Most anticipated albums still to come:

  • Colony House – When I Was Younger (July 22)
  • Bellarive – Before There Was (July 22)
  • House of Heroes – The Smoke EP (August)
  • Fever Fever – Aftermath (August 5)
  • Remedy Drive – Commodity (September)

Okay, that’s it for me today. What 2014 albums have been your favorites? Which ones are you most looking forward to?

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Embarrassing Christians

Some Christians really embarrass me.

I mean, really embarrass me.

They call Hollywood “HELL-ywood” and refuse to believe there’s anything redemptive about art that doesn’t somehow include an altar call. They insist that voting any way other than far-right Republican is as good as renouncing the Holy Spirit. They practically compete with each other to see who can be the most over-spiritual about the most mundane things, and then they scold anyone who doesn’t over-spiritualize the same things they do.

Sometimes the embarrassment I feel boils over to frustration. In these moments, I hate that I have to share the name “Christian” with folks like this. All I want to do is disown them and point people to what “true believers” are really like, but just when that frustration is about to reach its peak, a simple question settles me back down:

What if these guys are as embarrassed by me as I am by them?

I mean, I do have a big, gaudy tattoo. I worship Jesus best to guitar solos and noisy drums, and I don’t think the entire Christian faith would come crashing down if someone could definitively prove that people evolved from apes.

What if, while I see some Christians as old-fashioned and narrow-minded, those same Christians look at me as weak-willed and too eager to incorporate elements of worldly culture into my faith?

I have no doubt that some Christians see me that way – or that they would if they got to know me – but the thing about Christianity is that neither one of us gets to disown the other. As much as I want to say, “That’s not what real Christians are like!” – and as much as other Christians may want to say that about me – neither of us gets to say it.

Why?

Because real Christians aren’t defined by their blind spots. Real Christians aren’t defined by the sections of Scripture they overemphasize.

Real Christians are defined by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

I don’t care if you think it’s wrong for women to wear pants or if you picket funerals because you think that’ll shock people into believing the way you do. If you’re putting all your money on the risen Christ to set you right with God, you’re my brother.

Yes, truth and sin still matter. Yes, we need to hold each other accountable. But I don’t get to disown you for experiencing this faith differently than I do. I’m stuck with you.

It sucks, but it’s also kind of beautiful.

Because it means you’re stuck with me, too.

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Picasso, Perfectionism, and Knowing When to Quit

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

Towards the end of his life, Pablo Picasso started getting on the bad side of all the local art museums. What happened was he’d see his work on display and realize with dismay that one of the paintings wasn’t quite perfect. So he’d wait until the museum closed for the night, gather up his painting gear, and break in. He’d put some finishing touches on the painting until he felt like it was as good as it needed to be, and then he’d go home.

He didn’t just do this once, either. He kept on sneaking in and painting over his own work.

Needless to say, it put the museums in an awkward place. I mean, how do you tell someone to stop messing with the exhibits when the guy is vandalizing his own work?

Whether the story is true or not, it’s always resonated me. Here’s one of the greatest artists of all time looking at some of his best work of all time, and all he can think is, “Man, I wish I’d done that differently.”

I’m no Picasso, especially when it comes to painting (I once did so poorly on a painting assignment that my art teacher thought I’d spilled paint on the canvas) but I see some of the same concepts in my writing. Whether it’s a blog that I slapped together in an hour or a novel that I spent two years polishing, I can’t go back and reread anything I’ve done after I put it out for others to read. If I do, I’ll start second-guessing my word order, or wondering if a sentence was totally necessary, or thinking that maybe I should have added another subplot, or…

There’s always something else I can tweak.

Even after I’ve taken care of every grammatical error, every missing word, and every typo, there’s going to be something that I think might be just a little stronger if I made a simple change. The more I realize this, the more paralyzing the whole process of editing becomes. For blogs, it’s not such a big deal, since the philosophy is more to get something out there than to achieve any sort of literary excellence. But as I move into the editing phase for my next book, I find myself asking a simple question.

How do I know when this is done?

As a self-published author, the pressure is even bigger. I don’t have a publisher to tell me to make a couple more changes or to give me the green light. I’m the one who has to pull the trigger.

One of my favorite creatives is a graphic novelist named Doug TenNapel. He once said something along the lines of “I’d rather publish a ton of really good stories than one perfect one,” and I tend to agree with him. Theoretically, I could spend the rest of my life perfecting this new book, editing it and improving it as I honed my craft as a writer. Hopefully, I’d end up with one heck of a novel by the time I die, but I want to tell more stories than that. The other extreme is to do absolutely zero polish on everything I do and throw stuff out there as I get it done. I’d have a huge volume of work, but no quality, which actually sounds worse than the “single incredible novel” concept. So there’s a balance in there.

Somewhere.

But how do I know when this is done?

Songwriter Michael Gungor mentioned in a blog that the best guide he’s found for knowing when something is done is waiting for the moment when you can’t think of anything else that will make you love the piece more. I think this is a great place to start. It still leaves things open and a little vague, but it provides some nice direction.

Creatives: How do you finally decide you’re done with a project?

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Fact-Free Truth and Rock Monsters

In case you’ve spent the past couple months deliberately hiding from movie news and Christian blogs, let me fill you on on something:

Last weekend, a movie based on the Biblical account of Noah hit theaters.

It was made by an atheist.

And there were several occasions where the movie differed from the story in Genesis.

The latest film from Darren Aronofsky has managed to inspire the collective ire and admiration of Christian bloggers, movie reviewers, speakers, and podcasters all over the internet. As I type the rough draft of this blog, Noah has been in theaters a grand total of two days, and I’m already sick of hearing about it.

That’s why I’m not going to be writing about Noah right now. That and the fact that I haven’t seen it yet (It’s funny how many people have managed to form an opinion about a movie they haven’t even seen). Instead of writing about the movie itself, I’ll be writing about the response to it. Specifically, the negative response.

I know. I’m responding to a response. It’s sickeningly meta.

Granted, I haven’t read every single negative review of Noah written by a Christian, but most of the ones that I have seen can’t seem to get past the fact that things happen differently from how they happen in the Bible! These complaints swing from the obvious – like Noah getting help with the ark’s construction from the Nephilim (or rock monsters if you feel like making Aronofsky look really out there) – to the slightly more subtle – like God speaking to Noah through visions instead of through audible words.

These reviews bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why at first. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out discrepancies between the film and its source material, especially when the source material is the revealed word of God. I went on reading negative reviews and becoming increasingly angry and increasingly perplexed by my own anger…until I found a review that wasn’t completely opposed to the whole movie.

It was refreshing to find a review from someone who, unlike all these negative reviewers, didn’t sound like he went into the movie wanting to hate it. He still pointed out that there were some major deviations from the text, but he also acknowledged that, in spite of these deviations, the movie still communicated many of the same themes communicated in the account found in Genesis.

That was when the light went on for me.

So many of these negative reviews just couldn’t get past Noah‘s inability to stick to the facts of the story. You almost get the sense that these reviewers wouldn’t even consider looking into the deeper themes of the movie unless it was a word-for-word adaptation of the true story in Genesis. They got so stuck on these surface-level plot devices that they couldn’t move any deeper into the heart of the film.

They got so lost in the facts that they forget to look for truth.

And facts and truth are two different things. All facts may be true (though some may be misleading), but not all truth is found in facts.

One of the best literary examples of this concept is C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You know the story – a group of siblings find a magical world on the other side of a lamppost. It’s been winter there for a long time, but there are rumors that a lion – the lion – is on the move, preparing to set things right. This lion finally shows up, only to allow himself to be killed by a witch who had set herself up as queen. But death can’t hold this lion, and as he returns from the grave, new life comes to this magical world.

Is any of that factual? Of course not.

But how much of it is true?

Obviously, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is written as an allegory, so these truths are going to be a lot more obvious and didactic. Still, I don’t think it would be completely out of the question to be on the lookout for some of these “fact-free truths” in Noah.

There are plenty of good reasons not to see Noah – Aronofsky’s fondness for putting the darker parts of humanity on display in deeply unsettling ways comes to mind – but I’m not sure the story’s lack of Biblical accuracy is one of them. Because there’s this really cool thing that everything that isn’t the Bible has in common.

You get to pick and choose what to accept.

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The Question Behind the Question: Part 3

This post is part of an ongoing series about the relationship Christians have with music. It explores what we’re really asking when we ask “Are they a Christian band?” There’s an introduction to the series that explains this concept better, but in many more words. If you’d like to read it, you can check it out here.

I have one last post in this series for now. Thanks for sticking with me on this. At the very least, I’ve been able to work through what I believe about Christians and art, so that by itself has made this worth it. I may pick the series back up – or at least write about Christian music from another angle – later.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be switching my focus back to the novel I have in the works. So if you’ve been reading this series because you like Christian music, but are also interested in post-apocalyptic pirate fiction – I know, that Venn diagram intersection is pretty wide – you can sign up for my mailing list to get updates on the book here.

Now that I’ve spent too much time with general housekeeping and shameless self-promotion, let’s move on to our next question that people are really asking when they ask if a band is a Christian band.

Is this music safe?

People usually mean a couple different things when they ask if something is “safe.”

On the surface, they’re asking if they need to keep any of it from their kids. Is the subject matter appropriate for all ages? Does it promote good values? Are there any dirty words? I don’t see a problem with wanting to limit the objectionable content in your art, especially if you have kids around. As someone who works in Christian radio, I know how much it means to people to know they can turn something on and not worry too hard about what their kids are hearing.

Of course, people who prefer their art G-rated need to understand that not all of Christianity is G-rated. This is hardly new information. Christians need to talk about what sexuality looks like for Christians, whether they’re single, dating, or married. Christians need to understand the reality of spiritual warfare and just how dark some corners of the world are. They should probably crack open their Bibles and read Judges once in a while, too.

I don’t think it’s the job of each Christian artist to address all of these issues, either. Some people are going to have a lot to say on the difficult issues, while others are going to specialize in devotion-driven worship songs. And that’s okay. That’s what makes Church so cool. It’s a body with many parts, and each part has its own function.

If I’m a songwriter who has something powerful to say about how Christians act when it comes to politics, I need to write that song. I shouldn’t worry that I’m not simultaneously covering our treatment of the homosexual community or making sure there are a lot of good, vertical worship songs on the local hot AC station if I don’t have anything to say on those subjects. There are other artists in the church who God has set aside to take care of those. It’s their job to answer that call, not mine.

To borrow Paul’s imagery of the Church as a body, asking Christian songwriters to cover every issue that needs to be covered is a little like criticizing a foot as it carries a body toward a doorway: “You just seem content to keep on walking. Don’t you know that door needs to be opened? And you know there’s still some apple pie that needs to be digested, right? What are you doing about getting oxygen to the brain so we don’t pass out before we even get to the door?”

The other side of the “is it safe?” question is the side that scares me. This one is buried a little deeper, but it’s there.

Sometimes we’re asking if the theology of the song is safe. Are these lyrics biblical? Do they come from a place of theological truth? It’s a good question to ask, but I think the problem is we tend to decide on how safe an artist is, and place a stamp of approval on them until they come out and say or do something really crazy.

I say we because I’m guilty of this, too. Sometimes, I’ll be at church, singing a song I’ve sung dozens of times with my hands raised, and I’ll stop, realizing I’m not so sure I agree with what these lyrics are saying.

We have a dangerous habit of canonizing the work of people we feel we can trust. We don’t read as carefully or as critically when we’re going through a Francis Chan book as when we’re going through Rob Bell. We’ll swallow the latest Tomlin single much faster and more easily than one from Derek Webb.

When you’re asking if you can trust the lyrics that will come out of your speakers when you play a CD, the answer to Is it safe? is always no.

Conclusion

I’ve seen a lot of blogs that touch on similar themes to what I’ve written on the last few weeks, and they mostly end with the conclusion that Christian music needs to go away. They say it’s an ambiguous umbrella that gets put over work that is often created for the wrong reasons, and on that point, they’re right. It’s the conclusion I disagree with.

The last thing I want is for Christian music to go away. Even in the strictest definition of the term, this world needs Christian music. What we need isn’t the abolition of the Christian art subculture, but a change in the way we approach it.

We need more artists who are willing to create art from a place of honesty and truth, not fear that their work won’t be seen as “Christian enough.” We need more art-consumers who understand that any label you slap on music – whether it’s “Christian” or “experimental” or “hard rock” – is not an objective definition, but a subjective observation. We need more people who, instead of complaining about the state of the Christian music industry, are willing to do something about it.

And I think to some degree, this is already happening. Christian music has come a long way in the last few decades. We still have a ways to go, but we always will when we’re trying to do something worthy of the God of the Universe.

Read more in the series:

Question 1: Was this music made specifically for Christians?
Question 2: Will this music benefit my relationship with God?

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Filed under Faith, Music, Question Behind the Question

The Question Behind the Question: Part 2

This post is part of an ongoing series about the relationship Christians have with music. It explores what we’re really asking when we ask “Are they a Christian band?” There’s an introduction to the series that explains this concept better, but in many more words. If you’d like to read it, you can check it out here.

The question we’ll be looking at today is one that is most often at the heart of the “Are they Christian” question in some form or another. It’s also one of the most valuable questions we can ask about a piece of art.

Will this music benefit my relationship with God?

This question sounds great on the surface, but where it runs into problems is when people try to use it to objectively categorize art. The main issue lies in the fact that this question defines music by its effect on the listener, so a band that’s Christian to you may not be Christian to me.

For example, let’s think about Jon Mark McMillan’s How He Loves and the infamous “sloppy wet kiss” line. To me, the line is a profoundly worshipful image of God’s messy, over-the-top, and occasionally embarrassing way of showering his creation with love. Others may like it, but are uncomfortable singing it in church because they know the song wasn’t originally written with corporate worship in mind. Still others can’t get past the idea of French-kissing the creator of the universe.

So, is How He Loves a Christian song?

If we answer this question in terms of its benefit to the listener’s relationship with God, I and others who think like me would see How He Loves as a Christian song that’s beneficial to sing in church with fellow believers. The second group might see it as a Christian song, but not necessarily something to be sung in a corporate setting. At best, the third group sees it as a well-intentioned song that missed the mark of being truly Christian.

But if “sloppy wet kiss” gets changed to “unforseen kiss?” Now we’ve got a whole new line of debate.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask ourselves how the music we listen to affects our relationship with God. In fact, it’s a question I could probably stand to ask more. My problem is I save it for “on-the-fence” artists. I ask how my faith is affected when I listen to U2 or Mumford & Sons or Onerepublic, but what if I asked this question about the worship artists whose songs we sing in church? What if I asked it about the artists I hear on the local Top 40 radio station?

Art As Message Bearer

Sometimes, the question of how beneficial a piece of art will be to the listener’s faith comes with the unstated expectation that the benefit should be in the form of an obvious lesson. We Christians like our art to have a clear message, and this can be a problem.

Granted, there are tons of great Christian songs out there with strong, easily-discernible messages. Digging through a hymnal will reveal fantastic message-forward songs like Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and It Is Well. These are timeless songs, and their lyrics are very on-the-nose. They don’t hide behind much metaphor or ambiguity. There’s no question what they’re talking about.

But what makes these songs great isn’t how easy it is to see the author’s intent. The message isn’t even the primary reason they’ve stood the test of time, though it’s certainly contributed. No, these songs became classics because of their overall craftsmanship. The lyrics speak to powerful truth with evocative language and ordered meter. The melody lines and chord progressions work together well and have lodged themselves in the memories of churchgoers and even people outside the Church.

Too often, Christians look to Christian music as a medium whose primary function is to bear a message. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying Christian music – or Christian art in general – shouldn’t come with a message. I’m saying that when the only thing you ask of a piece of art is that it have a clear message, you’re not really asking for Christian art. You’re asking for Christian propaganda.

This is a difficult line to walk, because I do believe that one of the primary roles of art is to share truth. This is something I’ve only recently begun to process, so I’m open to talking more about it, but I truly believe that message and truth aren’t exactly the same thing.

The way I see it, messages can be true, but truth can exist without a message. There is truth when It Is Well speaks to the importance of praising God even in difficult times, but there is also truth when exactly the right chord is struck at exactly the right time. There is truth when an author crafts a sentence that perfectly encapsulates the feel of a city. There is truth when an actor is able to become another person so completely that you don’t see the guy who guest starred on your favorite sitcom only a week ago.

We take this level of art away from Christian musicians when we require their songs to have clear-cut messages.

Christian Music and High School Football

What’s worse is we don’t even stop there. We want clear-cut messages, and we want them about very specific things. We want meditations on scripture, descriptions of worshipful experiences, declarations of loyalty to Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. These are great things to sing about, but if this is going to be our definition of Christian art, we have severely narrowed our scope.

People point to how bad Christian art is or how far behind “non-Christian art” it is, and I think this narrowing of scope might be a part of it. We have such a restrictive definition of what constitutes art beneficial to the Christian faith that our sample size is only a fraction of the market.

I saw this same principle when I played football in high school. I went to a small school, graduating in a class of less than fifty students. We had some great athletes on our team, but the schools with several hundred students per class had incredible athletes. This wasn’t because the best athletes only went to big schools; it was because big schools had that many more athletes to choose from. The odds were simply higher that a five-star college recruit was wandering their halls.

And so in Christian music, we have a tiny group of artists that we allow in the “Christian musician” circle. Asking why there aren’t as many good Christian bands as mainstream bands is a little like asking why there aren’t as many good bands who exclusively write love songs.

On top of this, I wonder how many more talented Christian songwriters are driven away from Christian music when they realize how many subjects are off-limits.

When you think about it, the whole thing is absurd. Christianity isn’t a religion that applies only to Scripture memorization and super-spiritual moments of worship. Our God is the God of everything, and our art needs to communicate that.

Read more in the series:

Question 1: Was this music made specifically for Christians?
Question 3: Is this music safe?

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Filed under Faith, Music, Question Behind the Question