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

The Question Behind the Question: Part 1

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’ll kick off the question section of this series with what I think is one of the most practical questions hiding behind the “Are they Christian?” question. It may not be the most common or even the most helpful, but it’s something that a lot of Christian art has in common.

Was this music written specifically for Christians?

This is an interesting question to ask. As believers, we want something that speaks uniquely to us and to our relationship with God and with the world around us. At the same time, that phrase written specifically for Christians suggests we’re being marketed to. It suggests stuffy guys with hooked noses and thick glasses, thinking up which sequence of lyrics and chords will appeal best to the typical American Christian. They might not even believe the words they’re writing. They do, however, believe those words will make them money, so they write them anyway.

And here’s the thing. Sometimes that’s the case.

Well, maybe not the hooked nose thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real-life person with a nose I’d describe as “hooked.”

Still, there isn’t a doubt in my mind some of the songs we hear on Christian radio weren’t written from a place of faith, but from a place that knows how easy it is to market to Christians. Let’s face it – a lot of us will gobble up any piece of art so long as the name of Jesus is slapped on it and the production value is moderately professional. Because of this, it’s always been easy for me to assume that any time a Christian song doesn’t meet my standards of excellence, it’s because at some point, the songwriter threw up his hands and said, “Eh, it’s good enough. Christians will still buy this.”

I used to spend a lot of time judging music by this standard. If a band was putting out music that I thought was consistently mediocre, I’d go into research mode. If I didn’t see enough in interviews and feature articles to suggest these guys had vibrant relationships with Jesus, I would decide they were in it for the money. They couldn’t be trying to do any sort of good for the kingdom of God with music like that. Quite frankly, the whole exercise was exhausting. It was a relief to finally come to a simple realization:

I don’t get to know what’s in anyone else’s heart.

I only know what’s in mine.

For me to make a decision about what I think of someone else’s motives is a useless exercise. I can only do my best to keep my own heart in the right place when I’m writing, speaking, or performing – and that’s hard enough. I’d like to think I’m on the right track more often than not, but there have definitely been times when I’ve made art more for my own ego than for the glory of God.

At the end of the day, any act of worship we bring before God is going to fall woefully short of what he deserves. There is no perfect Christian song, no perfect Christian movie, no perfect Christian act of service. The cool thing is that even these frail offerings – whether they’re frail from lack of talent or from lack of devotion – can still bring people into a place of profound worship. I see it all the time in Christian radio. We’ll be playing a song that I can’t stand, and I’ll be convinced that it’s one of the “Eh, Christians will still buy it,” songs. But then I’ll get call after call from people who are having legitimate worshipful experiences and whose faiths are being nourished…all from this song that I was sure wasn’t any good.

Obviously, we should still be on the lookout for bad theology as we listen, but a contrived chord progression or a forced rhyme doesn’t disqualify a song’s status as act of worship.

The Ghettoization of Christian Art

The other concern many people have with music made specifically for Christians is that this approach can have an isolating effect on the music in question. The argument goes that we’ve ghettoized Christian art. We’ve ended up with a bunch of Christians creating art for other Christians, and all of this stuff with a message the world needs to hear is only making the rounds among people who’ve already heard it.

But this argument only looks at part of the picture. Yes, there are Christians working exclusively within the Christian market, but there are also Christians who have worked exclusively outside of it. There are even some Christians who have been able to work in both markets.

This is what the body of Christ is all about.

Being a part of this body means no one person has to do it all. It means my job is to tend to the corner of the garden God gave me. It means I’m going to look around and see other corners that need tending, but I’m not suited to tend them. It means I have to trust that whoever God called to tend to those other corners will do his job.

If we’re going to discount art that has no appeal to those outside the church, we have to discount a decent chunk of the Bible. The Psalms are filled with “songs of ascent” – songs intended to be sung as the Israelites approached Jerusalem for certain religious festivals. These were written with a very specific audience in mind. Maybe someone from another nation could appreciate the imagery and the rhythm of these Psalms, but for the most part, its lyrical content would alienate anyone who didn’t worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I’ll be back next Friday with another question behind the question. What are your thoughts on the idea of making art with Christians as the intended market?

Read more in the series:

Question 2: Will this music benefit my relationship with God?
Question 3: Is this music safe?

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The Question Behind the Question

When I put together my last collection of Christian music faves, I wasn’t sure about some of the artists I listed. I mean, I loved their music and all, but I wondered if a few of them really counted as Christian bands.

So I turned to Google for answers. I kind of hate to admit that, but it’s what I did. And as it turns out, I wasn’t the first to ask Google this question. All I had to do was type Is [band name] into the search bar, and there were four suggestions for four different ways to ask if these guys were a Christian band.

Apparently, this isn’t a rare search on Google, no matter which band you plug in. You can hop on there, type the word is, followed by a band name, and you’d be surprised what bands people apparently think might possibly be Christians. A fun game to play is to try to come up with the most obviously not-Christian band you can while still getting Google to suggest asking if they’re a Christian band. My high score is Sevendust.

For the longest time, my response to the “Are they a Christian band?” question was the trusty battle cry of many other Christians: “Of course not. Bands aren’t Christians. People are Christians.” It’s a fun answer to keep in your back pocket. It’s slightly witty, slightly deep, and it echoes a quote from the controversial-yet-hip Rob Bell, which goes, “Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.”

It’s true. Music can’t be Christian. Jesus didn’t die for your Spotify playlist.

But as I sat there on Google, ashamed to be asking the same question I’d mocked for years, I realized something. When people ask if someone is a Christian band, they’re not asking about their discography’s relationship with Jesus. There’s a question behind the question. And the question behind the question is different for a lot of people. When I asked it, I wanted to know if someone would show up in the comments and say “Um, those guys definitely aren’t a Christian band. Don’t you know anything?”

That’s a really weird definition for Christian music.

So all this brings us to a new question. What do people really want to know when they ask “Are they a Christian band?” In my limited experience, there are a few possibilities.

It’s been an interesting journey going through these questions. When I started writing this blog, I had planned to address what I thought were some of the most popular questions and then tear them down one by one with blazing, sarcastic wit. It was going to be awesome, and you’d leave thinking how cool and smart and world-wise I was. But while I still believe these questions do a poor job of classifying music, the more I dug into them, the more I realized they can be helpful. They say a lot about the weird relationship between Christians and music, and they can even help frame the way we consume art in general.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing about a few of these questions. I’ll be writing mostly from the perspective of Christian music, because that’s the realm I’m most familiar with, but I think a lot of these points will also transfer over to Christian books, movies, visual art, and any other medium that folks like to put in the Christian box.

So we’ll chat next week. I’m really excited and nervous about the coming weeks, and I’d love to get your feedback as this series progresses.

In the meantime, what is your question behind the question? What do you feel is the most common question behind the question for others?

Read more in the series:

Question 1: Was this music made specifically for Christians?
Question 2: Will this music benefit my relationship with God?
Question 3: Is this music safe?

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Filed under Faith, Music, Question Behind the Question

2013 Christian Music Faves

It’s been a fun year for Christian music. I don’t know if it’s because I made a much more concentrated effort than I did before to find new music and listen to it this year, or just because it genuinely happened to be a great year for Christian music, but there was a ton of great stuff in 2013. To that end, I’ve changed the categories I list. I’ve broken things up by genre, and eliminated the “Artist of the Year” category.

Anyway, enough with this unimportant opening ramble. Let’s talk music!

Debut Album of the Year

Leagues – You Belong Here

I basically discovered Leagues because Audio Adrenaline got back together. I was excited to hear Audio A snagged Dave Ghazarian – who happens to be one of the most talented people in Christian music – to play guitar, but I still wondered what their old guitarist Tyler Burkum could be up to that he wasn’t interested in being a part of the reunion. Tuns out, Leagues is what he was up to. They put out an EP before this, but You Belong Here was their first full-length album, and it’s fantastic. I’m a fan of bands that write great songs without using tons of instruments, and Leagues nails it. Reverb-laden guitar riffs, fantastic bass lines, and great, syncopated drums all form the perfect complement for singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell’s spacey, falsetto vocals. They aren’t a Christian band in the way that worship bands are Christian bands, but Cockrell has said that he sees each song as a “conversation with the Creator,” so you can take that to mean whatever you want. Lyrically, the band tends to focus on the nature of love, which I would argue is a pretty darn Christian thing to talk about.

Runners-up

Citizens - Citizens
Capital Kings - Capital Kings
Nations - Nations

EP of the Year

Abandon Kansas - A Midwest Summer

This was the hardest category to choose. Any one of the runners-up I have listed below could have gotten the nod here, and even some of the ones that I bumped off the list completely could be in this spot. But I had to pick one, and I went with the EP that made me most excited about the upcoming album. That award definitely goes to Abandon Kansas. They’ve really honed their quirky indie-pop sound to a point where I don’t think they’ve sounded better their entire career. They’re about as polished as you can get without sounding lifeless. I absolutely love Jeremy Spring’s voice. I can’t remember if I’ve made this comparison before, but he occasionally sounds like a more melodic version of the dude from Interpol.

Runners-up

Mike Mains & The Branches – Everything EP
Switchfoot - Fading West EP
Harvest - Curtains

Solo Album of the Year

Heath McNease - The Weight of Glory: Second Edition (A Hip Hop Remix Based on the Works of C.S. Lewis)

Heath McNease is one of the most prolific, under-the-radar artists in the Christian music world. This year, he released this album and an EP. That didn’t even come close to matching his output from last year, which included two full-length albums, an EP, and a mixtape. The dude just writes tons of music, and it’s all really high quality. And then he offers it for free. At the time I’m writing this, you can go to his Bandcamp and snag a free download of just about everything he’s done since he went indie. Anyway, The Weight of Glory: Second Edition is one of the best albums he’s ever done. It’s exactly what the title implies. Last year, Heath wrote a collection of songs, all based on the works of C.S. Lewis, and this year, he worked with Greg Lafollette to remix every one of those tracks. The final product is incredible. It’s a folksy hip-hop project with unbelievable lyrics. Heath is a great songwriter who has some insights of his own, but when you add to his talent the wisdom of Lewis, you end up with some beautiful, honest, insightful songs. I can’t say enough good things about Heath and his work, this album especially.

Also, the EP he put out this year, American Snake Oil Salesmen Visit the Great White North, isn’t too bad, either.

Runners-up

Bradley Hathaway - How Long
Jimmy Needham - The Hymn Sessions: Volume One
Derek Webb - I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, And I Love You

Rap/Spoken Word Album of the Year

Andy Mineo - Heroes For Sale

I’ll admit: rap, hip hop, spoken word, talk music – whatever you want to call it – is a new artform to me. I’ve listened to more of it this year than I have in my entire life. So maybe it’s that I’m finally learning how to appreciate this stuff, but I felt like there were a ton of great albums in the talk music vein this year. It does make sense. With the rise of Reach Records and Humble Beast Records, more and more talent is gravitating to this corner of the music world. Andy Mineo’s album was definitely one of the highlights of the highlights for me. What I love about him is how much he addresses the intersection of Christianity and singleness. It’s no secret the church tends to skew towards married folks, and it’s nice to see a guy talking not just about what it’s like to be single, but also how that affects his faith.

Runners-up

Twenty One Pilots - Vessel
Listener - Time Is A Machine
Sho Baraka - Talented 10th

Pop Album of the Year

After Edmund – Art and Commerce

After Edmund is another one of those great, under-the-radar groups. Their latest album is a near-perfect pop-rock album. It’s fairly long at 15 songs, but there really aren’t any duds to be found. They’re all really catchy, fun songs, with a great vocal performance throughout. Their songs are unquestionably pop songs, but they maintain enough of their rock roots to keep everything from being too sugary-sweet. There’s a nice aggression to all that polished instrumentation, and it works really well. Lyrically, they’re not as strong as other artists, but they make it work and manage to avoid total cheesiness, even when using superhero metaphors to talk about the Christian life in Superhuman. Subject-wise, their songs are all over the board, from straight-up worship tunes like Deserve and Never Let Me Go, to heartfelt and often quirky love songs like Fairy Tale and West Georgia.

No video for this album, unfortunately, since After Edmund hasn’t really messed around much on YouTube this year. Not so much as a lyric video from this album. Because of that, I’ll share this one from Royal Tailor. Their album totally blew me away. They grew up a lot this year, and I hope they stay in this business for a long time.

Royal Tailor - Royal Tailor
Jars of Clay – Inland
Digital Age – Evening : Morning

Rock/Alternative Album of the Year

Gungor – I Am Mountain

First of all, putting Gungor’s new album under any sort of genre heading is a disservice to the piece of art they’ve created, but I’ve stuck it here, because “Alternative” seems to be the best label of the mashup of folk, EDM, dance, and blues that these guys unleashed on the world this year. This is easily one of my favorite albums of the last several years, not just 2013. There’s a stretch on the album where you go from a spacey, soaring wall-of-sound ballad, to a Daft Punk-esque dance-rock tune, to a bluesy folk-stomper, to something that makes you believe that dance, rock, and cheesy western movie soundtracks can all coexist and thrive in one song. And yet, the whole album feels cohesive. This is largely thanks to the ongoing narrative running through the lyrics of each song. Lead singer Michael Gungor said I Am Mountain is a loose concept album. It’s maybe not as on-the-nose as the creation-fall-redemption story of Ghosts on the Earth, but there is definitely a lot of unity in the songs as they deal with wandering, feeling lost, finding a way back home, and hoping for a day when all is made right. Gungor has long been one of my all-time favorite artists, and this album only solidified that position for me.

Runners-up

The Almost – Fear Inside Our Bones
The Ember Days - More Than You Think
The Last Bison – Inheritance

Well, that’s all I’ve got. Did I miss something? I’d love to hear from you! Hit me up in the comments, Twitter, or Facebook, and we’ll chat.

Also, if you want to see more of my favorites, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist. Some of the bands I’ve listed here prefer to keep their music off Spotify, so you’ll have to find their music elsewhere, but most of these guys are on there. I have one song from each of the artists I’ve listed that are on Spotify, as well as a smattering of other songs from bands that just missed the cut this year. And at the very end of the playlist, I have a few really fun covers, including a gorgeous indie-folk cover of The Safety Dance and a super heavy re-imagining of Whip It. Check it out here!

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King Saul Wasn’t So Bad

King Saul gets a bad rap.

As the first king of Israel, he’ll forever be linked to the Chosen Nation’s rejection of a theocratic model of government, and, of course, there was the little issue where he kept getting possessed by demons and tried to kill the guy who was supposed to succeed him. It’s easy to draw a cause-and-effect conclusion between these two things: Israel told God they wanted a human king like the rest of their nations, so he sent them a guy prone to demon possession and violent mood swings.

That’s the way I always saw it, anyway. God was punishing Israel for their rejection.

But now, as I reread I Samuel, I’m not so sure that was the case.

After Israel’s rejection and Samuel’s warning, Saul’s story starts off like almost every other story of an Old Testament hero. God sends his prophet to anoint someone, but he’s not your typical hero. Sure, he’s tall and good-looking, but the first thing he does when Samuel tells him God’s plan for him is to point out his low standing:

But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? (I Samuel 9:21, NIV)

Classic Old Testament hero move.

Saul’s reign over Israel even begins fairly well. He starts out humble and kind. Even after Samuel anoints him, he doesn’t come back home to any fanfare; he tries to hide in the luggage. Later, when a small pocket of naysayers are brought before him, he refuses to have them executed because he wants the focus to be on God’s provision.

By all accounts, he seems to be a good king. After reading the first four chapters describing Saul’s rise to power, it’s clear that God isn’t punishing Israel by putting an evil man in charge of them. He’s giving them their very best option outside of Himself.

But Israel’s best option outside of God still failed them. When Saul’s reign started to go downhill, it went downhill fast. By the end, he was a lame duck who couldn’t do anything right, while all of Israel waited for David to finally take power.

But David’s reign wasn’t without failure. Neither was Solomon’s. Neither, really, was any other reign. You read passages in Kings about guys who were “good kings,” but even they weren’t able to bring lasting peace to Israel. So maybe Saul’s problem wasn’t that he was God’s judgment on the nation of Israel for rejecting him as their primary ruler. Maybe his problem was simply the problem of David and Solomon and every other human King of the Jews.

Maybe his problem was simply that our best option outside of God is still a pretty bad option.

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