Crowder: Neon Steeple

[Legacy Content]

How many “favorite bands” have been cursed by their fans upon release of a new “experimental” album? With that in mind, the debut release by Crowder, Neon Steeple, may have the deck stacked against it from the outset.

I remember picking up David Crowder’s first independent record (billed as University Baptist Church) my first weekend at college and feeling like it was something I had never heard before. It was part of the growing “worship” music subgenre, but it was artistic, introspective and advanced. Over the years, Crowder and his Band honed their craft of great melodies, solid guitars, electronic elements, DJ samples, occasional violins and southern gospel influences. While firmly planted within their genre, they definitely expanded its definition.

Their final record, 2011’s Give Us Rest, was—in a word—dichotomous. Blazing, electronic-heavy tracks were juxtaposed against acoustic guitar-only ballads and bluegrass oriented revival hymns. Shortly thereafter, the Band re-formed after the breakup under the moniker “The Digital Age” and released an incredible EP, Rehearsals, and the man himself put out a sparse solo video for the song “After All (Holy).” These two movements made the gaps in Give Us Rest all the more apparent.

David would go on to form a band of bluegrass musicians that would operate under the name “Crowder.” The played a few gigs, released a live iTunes session, and hosted a hoedown at Passion 2013. All signs pointed to a full-on nu-grass record, perhaps in the vein of Chris Carrabba’s Twin Forks project. A full-length record was announced, with Crowder himself coining the term “folk-tronica” to describe it.

I tell you all this, because this is how expectation is built.

So, it took about a month of listening for me to overcome my own expectations. What I was looking for was something more decidedly folk. What I found was a much heavier (elec)tronica influence. At first I was asking, “How is this any different than what he has done before?” But, eventually, I found the nuance and grew to appreciate the record for what it is, not what I had wanted it to be.

The bluegrass influences are there, and they aren’t subtle. Songs like “My Beloved” and “Hands of Love” don’t shy away from their use of the banjo. “Jesus is Calling” is suited for a Sunday afternoon church-grounds potluck. And “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner” has a dark, roadhouse flair about it. But then there are tracks like “I Am,” “Come Alive” and “You Are” that sound like they may have been lifted straight out of the DCB catalog with new instrumentation added.

There don’t seem to be as many immediately catchy, “singalong” songs here as Crowder (the man) has offered in his previous work. With that in mind, I don’t know if this album easily fits into the “worship” subgenre—and maybe that’s a good thing.

David Crowder is a standout among his peers and always has been. He has always been willing to play with sound and take risks that others may not be willing to take. That should be applauded. This group together has a lot to offer as evidenced by their unofficial work (that iTunes session is definitely worth a listen).

It seems, however, that when they hit the studio they weren’t quite able to reign themselves in enough to cultivate a single sound/message/identity. This is a good record, but I would just encourage you to leave your expectations at the door.

Film :: Ragamuffin

A few admissions before we start: 1) I’m a sucker for musician biopics, whether the big screen style of Walk the Line or the made for TV Temptations miniseries, 2) I like Rich Mullins – I was never a huge fan, but grew to enjoy his music after his death in 1997.

For those who don’t know, Rich Mullins was a Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter from the 80s/90s. He got his start allowing artists like Amy Grant to record his songs, some of which went on to become big hits. This earned him the opportunity to record and perform his own music touring at first with the likes of Ms. Grant and eventually on his own. The music community was stunned by the news of a car wreck that took Mullins’ life and left collaborator Mitch McVicker seriously injured. Rich was perhaps best known for his song “Awesome God”.

Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins offers a peek behind the curtain at this legendary artist. It takes a strong cue from its subject, Mullins, and sets a new precedent for Christian film. Daringly authentic, its wealth of “damn”s in the first 5 minutes will probably turn off most church-going audiences. The cinematography, however, is so gorgeous that (but for its content) you wouldn’t even think it to be a so-called “Christian” film. Other religious filmmakers should take note of the massive effect of investing time and finances in presentation.

The film doesn’t try to gloss over Mullins’ shortcomings. As an adult, he spends much of the film drunk or hungover, smoking, cursing, or fighting his own depression. While some of the artist’s most vocal fans may be angered or turned off by this – I found it to be a quite welcomed change from the typical fare. However, pairing the darkness of the film with Mullins’ personal brokenness and anti-fundamentalist theology could mean that there may only be a small audience that will really embrace this film.

Being something of a literalist, I spent a good chunk of the film trying to figure out who certain people were – or who they were intended to represent – that is, other collaborators. But eventually the film sucked me in enough to allow for some fuzzing of identities. If I do have one beef with the storytelling, though, it is in the poor portrayal of time’s passing. Rich (as played by Mark Koch) doesn’t seem to age a day from the start of college to his death. His hairstyle may change (inexplicably) from one scene to another, but the passage of time is difficult to track. Further, Rich’s 10-year-long relationship with his one-time fiancé seems to last no more than a year on screen, but then it’s just really hard to tell.

The acting is solid, but suffers from a poorly written script. Most of the dialog comes out clunky and perhaps forced. The only exception to this seems to be the mid-concert monologues delivered by Koch. Oddly enough, these segments appear to be direct quotations from Mullins himself – many coming directly from the well-known Live in Lufkin recording made months before the artist’s death. (Scenes from this recording are featured in the closing credits). The actors, most relatively unknown, work with what they are given and craft a great narrative in-spite of the dialogue.

In the end, this movie deeply affected me, but it’s not really something that I can put into words. Rich’s story and his theology hit all the right notes at the right time to create a significant impact. Despite his situation deep within the subculture of commercial Christianity, Mullins has something to say to everyone from the most devout to the most dejected. In short, there’s something for everyone here, if you’re willing to give it a try.

The film has just completed it’s college screening tour. It is available now at Walmart and will be in Christian bookstores this summer.

Book :: Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

“‘Relativism’ can mean many different things. We usually trot out the word as an epithet that is synonymous with anything-goes nihilism. But in so doing … we us the word in a very sloppy, imprecise way. We confuse something’s being ‘relative’ with being arbitrary or subjective or governed only by fleeting whims” (Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, 179).

Thus Dr. James K. A. Smith closes his coverage of the subject of relativism, when – perhaps – this is where he should have started.

Part of Baker Academics’ “The Church and Post Modern Culture” series (also edited by Dr. Smith), this entry finds its place alongside a growing library of Christian postmodern thought. The collection presents itself as “[writing] for a broad, nonspecialist, audience.” However, reader be warned, this is some heady stuff. Not to be undertaken as casual reading, much of what is presented requires concerted effort to unravel, though it is quite worth the investment.

In the previously discussed Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, Dr. Smith presented some of the most notable quotes from the works of postmodern philosophy and sought to situate them within a Christian framework. In this follow-up, the author’s source material, though focused in on three specific sources, is much broader. Here the philosophies of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom are put on display and the common, modern, western philosophy of knowledge is put to the test.

Spending much of his time working out the core thought of these three sources, Smith challenges the concept of foundational truth, but not in the way perhaps to which we are accustomed. Rather than a wholesale dismissal of “absolutes,” the author takes aim at those who would seek to find their justification therein. He points out our own dependence (“relative-ness”) on God’s creative act: that we are creatures and that God chose to relateHimself to us through Jesus Christ. Further, He has called us together within the context of the Church.

As such, Smith claims that we can’t rightly know God (nor anything “absolutely” true about creation) outside the influence of the Church. Further, he compares our desire toward so-called “absolute truth” as tantamount to the first sin of Adam. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but it certainly gives clarity to his argument.

Smith ends not with a no-rules, believe-what-you want faith, but with a call to “come and see” evangelism. He implores the church to deliver a tangible experience of an intangible God that makes the ethereal concrete in the lives that it touches. As he rounds out his argument, the author quotes George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine, “The conclusion is paradoxical: Religious communities are likely to be practically relevant in the long run to the degree that they do not first ask what is either practical or relevant …. ”

There is one point on which I must be critica. I would like to give it a pass, but I found the same issue presented in the collection’s previous release Liturgy as a way of Life – that is the potential mis-representation within the title. While Smith’s Postmodernism was quite focused and provided clarity on the term itself, Relativism re-casts the term from its colloquial usage into — perhaps, rightly — its philosophical definition. So, while the author fulfills his duty and addresses the topic as he rightly aims to, the casual reader may be disappointed by what he finds, or may not feel his questions on the topic are answered.

In short, I’m a firm believer in challenging oneself in study, and this work is definitely a challenge. It forces the reader to question his assumptions and his presuppositions, but it does so in an unoffending manner. While it may not yield the immediate actions list that you might walk away with from some other books on your “to read” list, it will certainly spark some welcomed new thinking.