I Am Mountain, Literalism & the Christian Complex

I am Mountain

Obviously nobody likes to create art like this and immediately have to explain or defend it in the first 48 hours. – Chris McGrath

‘Liturgical post-rock collective’ Gungor released their third album, I Am Mountain, earlier this week. Received with intense praise, in its musical quality, I Am Mountain continues Gungor’s journey of innovation, trumping Beautiful Things and Ghosts Upon The Earth.

The album has received equally intense criticism, with some of the more common criticisms being: “It’s not ‘Christian’ enough”. “There’s too much mythological language”. “Where is the hope?”

As Michael Gungor writes on his own blog, “explaining poetry with prose can sometimes be counterproductive”. It’s not wrong of people to want answers. We all do. But I say this: not every art piece produced by Christians needs to be a comprehensive picture of the gospel of Jesus. Christian Contemporary Music has attempted that and runs the risk of being inauthentic: what, you’ve got it all figured out? Attempting to answer our own hard questions is overwhelming. Michael speaks more about that in his book The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse.

My dancer friend Kim Stevenson is quoted in WeMakeStuff Volume 01, saying: “We do not give God enough credit for how much He can work through our art without it being a literal story about winning souls. God is so real to me while creating that I know He is integrated throughout my work. We need to dive into work that is relevant, pushing boundaries and moving ahead. We need to maintain high standards in our craft, and God will do the rest”.

Even Jesus did not summarize the kingdom of God in one artistic composition. Further, he was famous for speaking metaphorically, not literally. He compared the kingdom of God to this and that, allowing the meanings to rise and connect from the deep places of his listeners’ subconscious.

My friend Steffen, a marketer, tells me that 95% of our decisions are made subconsciously rather than consciously. Art forms carry power in their ability to bypass the rational-logical conscious filters and speak to the “heart”.

The final song is a perfect example of art speaking to the heart: this track, which is an exquisite wordless symphony, could speak – without using words – the messages these critics are desirous to hear in this album. Unexpected. Ironic. The message is potentially left unreceived by people looking for literalism. Yet… “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

It’s upsetting that some self-professed “long-time fans” are upset with Gungor, as if they’ve let them down. Let me ask you, on what grounds do you support an artist? As long as they give you the right warm fuzzies? It’s okay for Gungor to put out an album that focuses on questions and even heavier material. Michael Gungor himself doesn’t see it as a heavy album (see video below), but if that’s what the band is experiencing, their art is how they process it. Shunning their material and criticizing them publicly for it is like ostracizing your friend because they are asking hard questions in their personal life. These criticisms reek of an inability to empathize. They stink of objectification and narrow-mindedness.

When we shut ourselves off the the artist’s process, and just expect them to deliver a product that we can consume, we’ve lost sight of the purpose of art. Art’s purpose is to ask the right questions, not deliver all the right answers.

Here’s a video about what Gungor say about it:

Your Straw Man’s House Won’t Stand

The Internet may be the most powerful democratic force in the world. Theoretically, every user has an equal voice. There are still a few problems, of course. Every once in a while a user  encounters a seriously problematic idea. Send in the trolls.

A tweet I read by Lauren Dubinsky (wife of Max Andrew Dubinsky, whose hyper-creative multimedia is worth checking out) this morning said:

@laurendubinsky I have yet to meet a homeless person that doesn’t praise God for what little they have.

Two replies followed thus:

@GabrielGadfly @laurendubinsky I wonder if homeless atheists feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers.
@GodlessAtheist @gabrielgadfly Many of the religious groups force their religion on them in return for food. Also much of the support is state funded.

In the first reply, Gabriel Gadfly (surely his birth name) poses what seems like an honest question. Do homeless atheists, in general, feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers? We will get to his question in a moment.

Meanwhile, both Lauren and Godless Atheist have made claims.

Lauren’s claim is based on her personal experience on the ground. Personal experience is good, but can be misleading. It’s easy for me to have an experience that is counter to the norm. But if Lauren’s sample group was large enough, we’d say her claim is statistically safe. So, Lauren, you’re off the hook for now.

Godless Atheist’s claims are:

1) many religious groups force their religion on them in return for food

2) much of the support is state funded

You, the reader, have a choice. You can believe these at face value, or you can question them.

If these claims were made in an academic setting, these arguments wouldn’t fly because they completely lack evidence, are unspecific, and are logical fallacies. They aim to persuade through rhetoric rather than evidence.

We are not in an academic setting here, but that doesn’t mean we throw out our brains. It’s simple to see when someone is making a broad claim to change someone’s mind, but doesn’t have a sufficient basis to do so.

At best, Godless Atheist’s claims contain several logical fallacies found on this beautiful illustrated chart: 1) Appeal to Ignorance, 2) Appeal to Popular Belief, 3) Division (or Spotlight), and 4) Sweeping Generalization.

At worst, Godless Atheist saw an opportunity to stir up angry debate. For now, we will give him or her the benefit of the doubt, and deal with why this claim they’ve made is such a problem.

1) Appeal to Ignorance: In both claim 1 and claim 2, Godless Atheist has not given any evidence for, but has not received any evidence that points the other way. Their own ignorance plies our own ignorance until one of us becomes better informed.

2) Begging The Question/Red Herring: Because it’s a common thing for states to fund humanitarian work, it’s not a stretch to make, or believe, claim 2. But what is the author’s intent with this comment? Are they trying to undermine the work that religious groups do because funding comes from the government? This would be like saying the work of teachers doesn’t matter because the government funds schools.

3) Sweeping Generalization/Composition: Claim 1 applies the characteristics of one or a few of these “religious groups” on all of the religious groups. This is unfair. It’s equivalent to calling all American citizens pro-war, because of their government’s position and their military prowess. (This links with guilt by association)

4) Generalization: Use of the word “many” and “most”: these are vague and generalizing, and can steer evidence very poorly, in the same was as using superlatives like never or always.

5) Appeal to Emotion (Fear): Use of the term “force their religion”. A vague term to begin with, no definition, examples, or evidence has been given. Has Godless Atheist observed an instance of this which they can cite? Forcing religion, in this situation, seems to me to be a general statement expressing potential discomfort from encountered ideas that are foreign to a person. And this happens every single day.

6) Division/Generalization: If a religious group exists that does proselytize to needy people before they give them anything, that group would not be representative of the majority. It is completely unfair and untrue for Godless Atheist to use words like “most” in their claim.

 

So, let’s get back to Gabriel, who has been waiting patiently to have his question answered. If Gabriel is in earnest, can we find the answer to his question? Yes, we can!  We will need to ask the only people qualified to answer: homeless atheists themselves.

But I’m pretty sure that if we do ask them (and there may be none, or very few, or very many), that they’re likely not going to all give us the same answer. I’d say it’s safe to assume that some will say yes, some will say no, and some will give a conditional answer.

But to further the discussion, why don’t pose a corollary? Do religious people feel uncomfortable receiving aid from non-religious organizations? Do religious people feel uncomfortable buying groceries from an atheist supermarket cashier or receiving tax breaks from secular governments? Sometimes it helps frame the nature of a question to think about its reverse.

If Gabriel’s question is not in earnest, it might instead be an incendiary comment meant to stir up debate on a completely unrelated topic, for example, whether religious groups oppress others.I chose to take some time out of my morning to respond to this discussion at the risk of feeding a troll, because I believe we can all do our part to make the Internet a place where good ideas are valued and fallacies aren’t simply let off the hook.

25 Albums That Redefine

Typically, unless you’re Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, no-one cares about your Top 25.

But for those hungry for great music, I’m serving bite size portions from last decade’s best independent music.

These artists, who are writing from a faith perspective, are not in the “Gospel & Religious” category assigned by the music industry. Many of them would rather not be associated with that category at all. They’re artists who produce authentic material in their own right, while not neglecting the deeper dimensions of the human experience.

1/ Misty Edwards – Relentless

Misty Edwards’ 2007 release “Relentless” absolutely rocks. It’s passionate faith sung with sonorous beauty, married with masterful guitar riffs and basslines. The quieter side of the album is just as powerful. The album comes as a double disc, with the second featuring acoustic material.

2/ Shad – TSOL

One of Canada’s best rappers, witty and eloquent emcee Shad is Rwandan-born and Ontario-raised. He articulates plenty of his spiritual insights within his clever and humorous lines of social commentary.

3/ Kye Kye – Young Love

Kye Kye’s Young Love is a gorgeous rippling indie glitch-pop wonder that’s equally performed in clubs and sanctuaries.

4/ Gungor – Beautiful Things

The album title refers to the beautiful things that God creates, but in a way it is self-referential; this is a truly stunning album. Lyrically, it is a celebration of many central and tender tensions in the Christian faith. The vision of this album seems equally inspired by the beauty of God’s works and the realization that there is yet much restoration to take place. Doubt, faith, joy and solemnity are all given their due as the listener makes his or her way through the tracklist. The heart and mind come away nourished.

This is Christian music at its finest. Gungor employ a multiplicity of styles and master them. What Gungor presents to their listeners with this release is an album that is sophisticated but unpretentious, deeply refreshing and reflective with meditation. It expresses the band’s growing understanding of a grander God and it dares the listener to open their mind.

5/ John Mark McMillan – The Medicine

For all of his lyrical and musical prowess, John Mark McMillan is not the sort of musician to produce just any song. He wrote on his blog at the time of his second album’s release, “the world has enough songs… if you have to write a song, write something that no-one’s said before”. He puts his money where his mouth is with this album as he paints rich allegory over stunning blues-rock backdrops.

6/ United Pursuit Band – Found

7/ Amber Brooks – Still I Rise

Amber’s debut album, Still I Rise, is passionate, beautiful, and a cry of the heart, personally and collectively. Find a love story in the lyrics about the mutual divine pursuit. Read my interview with her here.

8/ Audra Lynn (Hartke) – Vow

http://craigdanielketchum.tumblr.com/post/14205441934/adorned-audra-lynn

9/ Sean Feucht & BURN 24-7 – Sacred Mountain

Imagine what ambient progressive instrumental music would be if it was inspired by God, then find it in listening to Sacred Mountain.

10/ John Mark McMillan – The Song Inside The Sounds of Breaking Down

The album with the song that took the world by storm, “How He Loves Us”, is filled with all kinds of good stuff. McMillan is a poet of rare calibre.

11/ The Listening – The Listening LP

With the experience of former band Rock ‘n’ Roll Worship Circus behind them, musicians Gabriel Wilson, Josiah Sherman, Chris Greely, and Eric Lemiere return as The Listening to release this creative and beautiful debut album.

Confident musicianship (You’ll hear them play in 3, 4, 5, and 7 time) paired with yearning lyrics fills The Listening LP and highlights not just the bands’ musical and lyrical maturity but their very passions and dreams. The album is filled with diverse sounds, melodies, and textures, revisiting the same echoes which could be heard in The Worship Circus’ music – Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Doves, Radiohead, and more. Each song is fresh and different, yet there is an unmistakable unity to the album. Each part articulate yet seamlessly woven together with the others; the work compliments the artistic sensitivity behind it and reminds this author of Paul’s demand of the church in 1 Corinthians 12. Whether it is the delightful metamorphosis of sound on “Triple Fascination” and “Be In Your Eyes” or the haunting musical narrative of “Lovely Red Lights”, each piece contributes to a greater vision, a vision the band has laid open to their listeners, an inspired message of hope. The Listening weave a musical story rich with contemporary insights as well as biblical allusion indicative of their spiritual convictions. One song on the album, “The Factory”, is a parable that, like the parables of Jesus two thousand years ago, followers do not always grasp immediately without explanation.

The innovative sound, honest lyrics, and oftentimes unusual instrumentation on The Listening LP blows a fresh breeze into the alternative rock world as well the sphere of Christian contemporary music. Overall, a fantastic record on multiple levels and should appeal to a wide audience.

12/ Brock Human – Come Away

Returning to the States from a trip with Iris Ministries in Mozambique and with the intention to record an album, Brock Human had a puzzling fall into depression and a complete creative block. With his desperate need for God to be real, God spoke to him in a dream. Brock writes, “in six days he showed me greater love than I could have imagined”. Within a week six songs were complete and the album was finished.

The album comprises simple, profound statements of faith and truth set against the backdrop of sweeping guitars, rich piano, and pulsing African drumbeats. The middle tracks are an encouragement of God`s good plans for each life, and a commitment to wait on the Lord. The album closes with a sung Apostles` creed and an instrumental progression. Let Me In is a flowing album filled with the real hope and inspiration of a real God. It is a true testament to the words of Jesus in Luke 18:27, “What is impossible with man is possible with God”.

13/ Matt Gilman & Cory Asbury – Holy

Two virtuoso voices come together to create one astounding album rich in scriptural allusion and prophetic insight.

14/ Will Reagan & United Pursuit Band – In The Night Season

Honest and unpretentious; this album set up the United Pursuit Band to become an influential force in contemporary worship music.

15/ Branches – Everything You’ve Ever Done Has Been Beautiful

Electronica wizard Jonny Hughes’ fantastic side-project called BRANCHES is ambient electronica that is peaceful and phantasmagorical all in one, well-fit for soaking (listening/meditative) prayer. This, his sophomore EP has been called a “heavenly slice of electro indie-pop” and described thus by XLR8R: “Throughout the instrumental affair, Hughes implements a bath of ethereal synths and arpeggios which is built upon using a seemingly endless supply of delicate melodies with interlocking rhythms that precisely play off each other. The first blown-out drum loop enters the procession just after the one minute marker, eventually disappearing only to pop up again in short spurts between a number of incredibly melody-washed breakdowns. In customary electro-pop fashion, the biggest burst of energy is saved for the track’s climax, where giant, glitched kicks and snares fire at will as Hughes’ melodies soar above, unscathed by the tumultuous sounds below.”

16/ Josh Garrels – Jacaranda

Sublime lyricist and instrumentalist Josh Garrels’ breakbeat folk album weaves lyrical poetic tapestries that challenge and clarify.

17/ Jon Foreman – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter EPs

Jon Foreman (lead singer of Switchfoot)’s solo project brought forth an EP for every season, and did not shy away from allowing us to peer into his own wonderings and wanderings.

18/ Extol – The Blueprint Dives

Extol’s technical musicianship earned the band a Spellemannsprisen nomination for best metal album of 2005. The progressive extreme metal band writes music in subgenres including death metal and thrash.

19/ Jason Upton – Between Earth And Sky

Have you ever heard an angel sing? At the recording of Jason Upton’s album “Remember”, there were full grown men on their faces on the ground. Between Earth And Sky contains live versions with a studio quality of some of Jason’s most powerful songs.

20/ Jesus Culture – Your Love Never Fails

Jesus Culture’s 2008 CD/DVD release featuring Kim Walker, Chris Quilala and Melissa How (Wise) helped bring fresh spirit-led worship to the forefront of CCM by using material from the likes of Misty Edwards, Sarah McMillan, Chris McClarney, and others.

21/ Nina Landis – Fly

Nina’s clarion call to the church carries the urgency of a modern prophet, calling us back to our senses and to God’s heart. It’s incredible how strong the responses one album can provoke. “Fly” is as likely to have you weep on the floor of your bedroom as to rock out in your car.

22/ Phil Wickham – Cannons

The song “Beautiful” of this album is a diamond in a field of gems.

23/ Jeremy Enigk – World Waits

Jeremy Enigk, one of the founding fathers of 90’s melodic punk, became a Christian during his time as lead singer of the Seattle emocore band Sunny Day Real Estate and made a bold move in the punk community by opening up about how he had come to love Jesus and wanted to sing about him. His conversion to Christianity was met with mixed reactions and Enigk’s faith journey continued to be a point of contention in his fanbase. He has since released a handful of albums, carrying a change of tone from his old songs with Sunny Day Real Estate. A biographical account can be found here: http://www.explorefaith.org/music/enigk.html

24/ MewithoutYou – Brother, Sister

Masters of the modern parable.

25/ Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus – A Beautiful Glow

Pioneers of Christian indie music, the Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus’ bizarre name clues you in to the fact that they weren’t afraid to be different. Speaking powerfully of hope for humanity, A Beautiful Glow radiates joy via Moog Synth. Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus now exists as music collective The Listening.