A Disruptive Gospel

I stumbled across this video this week.

Though that instrument is undeniably weird (and cool), a couple ideas sprang into my mind.

“Random” isn’t really random. The proprietors of the festival proclaim that the attenders had just witnessed a “random act of culture”, but it actually was only random for those who didn’t know that “art” was about to happen. For those “on the inside”, the act was actually intentional and really well thought out. Wu Tong is wearing a mic. The audio guys needed to know when he was going to play. There had to be some sort of signal for him to come in. A few people really knew what was going on.

What it you substituted the word “gospel” for “art”?Do that, and you have a very interesting idea. Great art disrupts people’s lives; it interrupts the “flow” of the world. It makes people sit up and take notice. In fact, in some instances art can change the world forever. Shouldn’t the gospel be just as disruptive (in a good way, of course)? Couldn’t the gospel make us sit up and take notice, and change our world forever?

To disrupt the world—to get the word’s attention—you need more than “random acts” of art (or gospel). You actually need “artists” who are willing to plan and execute an interruption in a very intentional, strategic way. If the gospel is the ultimate culture-disruption, what are you planning? How can you get the world’s attention in an intentional, compelling way?

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Wonder, Craft, and My Secret Love of Electronica

I’ve been really blessed this week to see and hangout with some really gifted artists like DJ Promote and Propaganda, a really great hip hop artist. Tuesday night DJ Promote was doing a set before a big rock band played, and the kids were just going crazy. Propaganda was talking to me and another guy and said, “You know, I’ve been all around the world with this guy (the DJ), and no matter where he goes, within ten minutes the room is just going crazy. He always wins.”

I replied, “I think I know why; it’s because I can feel the joy in his mixing. I can sense the emotion behind what he does.”

Ever met someone who somehow was giving and generous the moment they shook your hand?

I’d met Promote backstage before I even knew what he did, and even then he was gushing with joy and wonder.

Ever felt blessed by just being introduced to someone? You don’t even know how it worked, but you turned away and felt richer and better for just having said “Hello” to them?

That’s the way it was with both Promote and Propaganda. (He did some spoken word stuff that was just so legit, it was amazing.)

Though I have no doubt that they both put in their “10,000 hours”, the thing that set them both apart was the joy and wonder that they put into their art.

Have you ever considered the fact that joy and wonder can be translated by technology? That emotion comes through bits and bytes, electricity and wires? I have not idea how it’s even possible, but I am blown away that repeatedly this is the case. You can hear it. You can feel it.

Great art is, in fact, a gift, but the gift that’s being given in these cases are emotional and spiritual, not merely musical. It transcends craft.

… I would almost venture to say that joy precedes craft.

Keeping in mind that “our art” may involve the crafting of our gospel-shaped lives, or a specific artistic endeavor; remembering that “calling” exists at the intersection of our deepest needs and the world’s deepest joy…

What kind of joy are you putting into your art today? What wonder are you bringing to your calling?

In the meantime… enjoy some great mixing and spoken word.

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“Gospel Artists”, pt 1

We have too many maps.

In general, maps do a great job of (a) telling you where you are, and (b) telling you where you need to go. Some of them even tell you the fastest route to get there. Maps are efficient and effective.

But what maps can not do, almost by definition, is how to discover something unexpected. They cannot tell you how to find that beautiful accident: a scenic highway, the fruit stand with amazing  peaches, the funky old barn right beyond the turn of the road.

It’s the job of maps to be accurate and efficient; that’s their nature.

But sometimes, I think we need to acknowledge that we need something “beyond” (or “short of”) a map.

As human beings, disciples, and ministers in the 21st century, I think we live in a time where “Gospel Maps” abound all around us. Books and conferences, CDs and Podcasts abound, all sharing the best ideas from around the world. We are inundated with information about how to find out what God is doing in the world, and then how to translate that into gospel activities.

But they are all maps. And maps inhibit discovery; they inhibit serendipity; they give us the easy way to get from Point A to Point B.

And I’m not sure that “efficiency”, and even “accuracy” is the point of living the Gospel Life.

What if the point is “creativity”, “innovation”, and “love”.

Maps can’t really tell you how to ultimately do that.

In Linchpins, Seth Godin writes, “The reason that art is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map.”

From 1997–2001, I was a part of a ministry that was attempting to connect with a new generation of believers that saw the world slightly differently than their parents and grandparents. In the early years of Axis, finding any other “partners” in ministry was difficult. In fact, we only knew of two other ministries in the entire U.S. that seemed to be speaking our language.

In other words, there were no maps.

There were no conferences to go to.

There were no minor ministry celebrities to follow on Twitter.

There were only three widely-released CDs of worship music that sounded like “us”.

Let me say that again: there were only three widely-released worship CDs that resonated with what we were doing. 

No maps.

We had no choice, but to try and innovate. We looked at each other, and called out the best of our creativity and imagination and will. We experimented, we implemented, we corrected, focused and re-focused.

I think that our history as believers is chock full of innovators, people who found themselves in places where there either were no maps, or the maps they thought they had were incorrect:

Brennan Manning…

Henri Nouwen…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer…

Karl Barth…

Thomas á Kempis…

Martin Luther…

Augustine…

Paul of Tarsus…

John The Beloved Disciple…

James the Just…

… and, of course, Jesus Christ.

All of these artists innovated fearlessly and creatively. Their imaginations were fully engaged, and though (save Jesus) they made mistakes (yup, they made mistakes) they kept forging ahead rather than retreat to the map.

Today, maps surround us. You can follow any number of ministry blue prints and worship styles. Hundreds of “new” ideas/maps are thrown at us—daily—through Amazon, Lifeway, Catalyst, Passion, Willow, Hillsong, Twitter, etc. etc.

But is this your best? Is this the best imagination that you can bring to the table?

Understandably, sometimes we need a map. Sometimes we need to get from Chicago to Richmond quickly and efficiently. But if we never got off the major interstates, would we ever discover the farmer’s market outside of Winchester? (The most amazing apple pie, ever, btw.)

I think our Gospel—our Good News—deserves more than a map. It deserves all of our imagination and effort.

Where are you relying too much on Gospel Maps?

Where do you need to learn—or what do you need to throw away—in order to become a Gospel Artist? 

“MoFo.”

This is a bit of rant…

I was on my favorite gear discussion board today, when I noticed a few posts with similar titles: “Post your favorite U2/Praise and Worship Pedalboards”; “Favorite Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedals”; and so on…

<sigh>

Church, what have we become? Where has our creativity, our imagination, our artistry gone?

In 1998, “The dotted 8th” (let the musician understand) was a revelation. It was new, it was majestic and ambient, rhythmic and interesting, and could lay down tremendous beds of comforting sound around a band and worship leader.

That was 13 years ago now, folks. We were absorbed in the sound of U2 because, well, that sound was cresting and peaking. Now, the culture has moved on. U2 is still selling out stadiums, but Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and The National are making exciting music now. Why won’t we embrace them as “temple musicians”? Why have we stopped growing?

Yes, U2 is an amazing, even anointed band. Yes, Coldplay is their scrappy sonic younger brother. But we’ve all missed the point, and by missing the point we’ve cheapened U2/Edge’s sonic tapestry as well as the creative element in worship music.

Because what we should really be interested in, musicians, is the way Edge thinks. Not how to rip off his delay tone.

He said once in an interview, “I’m interested in abusing technology.”

Where’s that attitude and approach in our efforts? Have we settled?

We pick and choose the safest parts — we love “Where the Streets Have No Name” (c’mon, I know it makes you cry; I’ll confess: me too!), but we shy away from “Mo Fo” sonically as well as lyrically (even though I’d say that the latter is about an overtly spiritual song as you could find, if you, um, cared to read the lyrics). Feed 3 or 4 fuzz pedals into a Whammy Pedal and hit “Go” … because that type of thinking is where all of this tapestry came from!

But we’d rather figure out how to find the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal”.

You know what the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal” is?

The one you can afford. The one you’re stepping on right now.

Because worship music is about incarnation. Which means it’s about God’s intersection with you. With your experiences, your gear, your creativity, with your imagination.

Worship guitarists out there — what are you afraid of? Ry Cooder once said, “Go where it’s dangerous and say, ‘Yes.’”

Go ahead. Step on the pedal; the one that’s “NSFW” (“Not Safe For Worship”). It will be okay (though I didn’t say it would be easy)… Edge would be proud.

And the church, in the long run, will be edified…

Because we still need imagination. Maybe now more than ever.

Yes, yes, yes.

I get this, at a very deep level. This is how I approach music.

“Either you are the music or you’re not. There are a lot of people that want to do what I do, but what I do is about humility and righteousness and understanding, because music is precious. I know it’s just rock and roll, but there are moments in there. There really are and you can’t miss them. It’s got to be soulful, it’s got to speak to you, it’s got to twist your little heart, and you have to be turned on.” – Andy Johns, Producer, in September 2010 Guitar Player (see credits here)

Currently Reading

Because I went to the library yesterday, here’s a list of what I’m currently working through:

  • Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town
  • Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation
  • Love is an Orientation
  • High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian
  • Art and Fear
  • Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity
  • But Is It Art?
  • How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity
  • How to the Think About the Great Ideas from the Great Books of Western Civilization

… I’ll let you know how it goes.

Potential is a Lie

I don’t believe in “potential”:

+ artistic potential

+ athletic potential

+ redemptive potential

Though the word  speaks promise and hope, it can also freeze and feed damaging pride.

Countless children (and adults) are blessed with potential…

… Few realize it.

Because let’s face it: “realizing” potential means:

+ risk

+ hard work

+ discipline

And few of us want to go down that road.

“Potential” keeps things in dreamland, where we are free to conjure images of “What I could’ve been.”

“Potential” keeps us from confronting reality:

…. That maybe we’re lazy and undisciplined.

…. That maybe we’re not the best, and need to learn from someone else.

…. That maybe we are in desparate need of editing and revision

…. That maybe “the artistic life” is NOT a matter of receiving a sprinkling of the magic pixie dust, but is in FACT a matter of waking up at 4:30am to write poetry before the children wake up (see Sylvia Plath)

But this, in fact, is where REALITY lies. This is where the BLESSING resides.

If you live inside of “potential” what begins to happen is that you begin to believe your own hype:

- I’m the best

- I could’ve been “full-time”

- I could’ve written that record

- I am owed respect

While “the artists” are waking up early and submitting themselves to discipline, while they are humbly sitting before their craft and confessing the terrifying unknowing of “how-to-make-it-better”,

….

….

….

…. You can flip that burger for table #2.

Potential is a lie. Realization is the truth. “Done” is the land of destiny.

2009 Song Assassins

Last year, I started a tradition of listing my annual “Song Assassins.” I through these out on last year’s blog, but I shut that one down, and so I present this year’s selections.

Here’s what this list is not:

  • This list is not the “Best Music of 2009″; there are some 2009 releases here, but there’s some older songs as well
  • This list is not objective; selfishly, these are my highly subjective opinions

Here’s what this list is:

  • These are songs that grabbed my attention, that made me stop what I was doing, and listen, or tap my foot, or marvel at a lyric or a guitar line
  • These are songs that stayed in heavy rotation on my iPod or in my CD player for a few days in a row

With those clarifications, here they are; do yourself a favor and give them a listen.

  • January: “A Break in the Clouds” (The Jayhawks). If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Jayhawks fan. I think they represent the best in midwestern Americana — great, hymn-inspired harmonies, unpretentious arrangements and musicianship. This is from their release, Smile, which NPR’s Fresh Air once referred to by asking, “What if you made the best record of the year (2000), and no one heard?”
  • February: “Fix It” (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals). Ryan Adams can write a 3 minute song of longing and desire like no one else. When he sings, “I’d fix it if I could”, I believe it. I feel like I’ve spent the last three years of my life trying to write this song; I still haven’t written it.
  • March: “I’m a Man” (Black Strobe). I’m a pretty huge Guy Ritchie fan, and couldn’t wait to see Rocknrolla when it came out on DVD. This song has great imagery behind it in the movie and with the audio here, I just love the attitude–everybody “chunkin” away on that shuffle groove. This is 21st century blues. I think Muddy Waters would be proud.
  • April: “Wake Up” (Arcade Fire). It’s simple: as spring arrives, and it’s possible to drive around with the windows down, who doesn’t want to crank this up and scream “Ohhhhhh Ohhhhhh….” along with this.
  • May: “Palestine, Texas” (T-Bone Burnett). I love almost everything about T-Bone: his producing ethos, his guitar playing, his quirky song-writing. This song is from 2006′s True False Identity, which is an amazing journey of depravity and salvation. What an amazing groove: stand up bass, awesome, “greasy and gritty” guitar sounds… If you like stuff like Buddy and Julie Miller, I think you should give this a listen as well.
  • July: “That’s Not My Name” (The Ting Tings). I was driving through Knoxville, TN late one night, and heard thirty seconds of this song, and I was instantly hooked. The next morning (thanks to Google), I had identified the tune and went in search of it. This song actually swings…hard! — it’s not just mindless pop.
  • October: “Names That Fell” (Zach Williams). I went to a conference for pastors and church leaders in October. Most of the music there was pretty boring and typical — high-powered Coldplay and U2-esque tunes and bands that looked much “too hip” for me — when all of a sudden this guy walks on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Mind you, this wasn’t the typical evangelical acoustic guitar (which is usually either a Taylor cutaway or an $5,000 Breedlove or Nashville-approved custom box); no this was a gritty, songwriter’s guitar: something like this. He also looked like he could’ve walked right off the cover of Big Pink or The Band. Now he had my attention. He sang this song, unaccompanied, and just blew me right away. Such conviction, such simplicity.
  • December: “Staráflur” (Sigur Rós). Years ago, probably in winter 2004, I’d heard enough about “this freaky band who didn’t sing in any known language” that I decided I needed to seek some of their stuff out. I went to the library and found a CD that had song titles I couldn’t read or understand, took it back to the house, and put it in the computer. Sounded nice. Got some tunes onto the iPod — a first gen, mind you!! — and filed it away for “future listening”. One grey day, I’d hopped on the El to go downtown dialed it up. With the grey, snow-blanketed landscape of Chicago forming a backdrop, I had an amazing musical (I daresay, spiritual) experience. This was music at its best: transcendent, emotional, communicative. It took me to the unexplained places in my soul… A few years (and many iPods) later, I’d lost the copies I had, and since their flipping songs aren’t titled in English I couldn’t remember what I’d been listening to that magical winter’s day. This December, I finally found it again. Though “Svefn-G-Englar” was the actual first song I’d heard, this year, this was the song that grabbed me.

So there it is! I hope you enjoy the tunes, and my commentary on them. Sorry there’s no blazing guitar solos, but if you know me at all, you know that those just don’t matter that much. It’s the music that gets ya!

From www.maidavalemusic.com

From maidavalemusic.com (eric writing):

Thought I’d give you all an update as to what we’ve been up to. In a sense, it’s been a quiet few months since April: Birmingham, Gainesville, Warehouse, etc.

But just because it’s been quiet doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been productive…

We’ve been laughing a lot.

Exploring space.

Throwing off some creative shackles.

Revisiting old friends.

Not only that, but we’ve been graduating, preparing for weddings, building houses, shipping off our children to other states, shipping off our parents(?) to other states, and in general trying to stay as cool as possible.

These activities — along with the requisite existential meltdowns — have comprised our spring and early summer.

We’ve been using this time to do as much creating as possible given the state of our collective lives. We’re enjoying the process, going down trails that prove to be rabbit holes, following our noses into the deep, preternatural forest then retreating, glad for the bread crumbs we’ve dropped along the way.

New | old colors and tools are beginning to find their way onto our pallet. Names like Marvin and T-Bone, Motown and Jagger/Richards are being referenced. Words and phrases like, “Use the 57”; “Neve”; “Warmer” and “Spirit” are finding their way into our lexicon.

I daresay, we’re making the most exciting music of our lives.

Who knows what will emerge from this cocoon, but I think we’re learning about each other, and we’re becoming better friends, artists, and pilgrims. Right now our plan is to release some of this music in the near future, but we’re not putting deadlines on this process; it’s too precious for that.

We are planning some live shows in August and September, and we think that we’ll all enjoy getting to know each other again.

In the meantime, feel free to continue to spread the word, hook folks up to MySpace and Twitter.

We promise to let you know when the cocoon opens…