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Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

Category Archives: reviews

Late to the ‘party’

The other book I had with me on holiday was Rob Bell’s (in some circles – controversial) book “Love Wins”.

Yes, I’m pretty late reading it and passing comment and I’m sure that all possible comments have already been aired on the book, but I wanted to share some thoughts on what ended up being another fairly rapid read.

Interestingly, going back to read Rob’s earlier book ‘Sex God’ since I’ve been back from holiday and remembering a fair amount of ‘Velvet Elvis’, ‘Love Wins’ is really just further development of a thread that runs through a lot of Rob’s work.

Rob came in for a lot of criticism having written this and was called all sorts of things even before its release, even by people that hadn’t actually read the book (a dangerous policy if you ask me).
The first label levelled at Rob was that he is a ‘Universalist’. I didn’t get that impression from reading the book. Rob is definitely not saying “everybody gets saved in the end regardless”, he does however ask the question “what kind of God do we believe in?” Do we believe in an all powerful God that can find a way to redeem everything and everybody in His own way, or do we believe in a God that isn’t powerful enough to find a way to restore all things to himself?”

That’s quite a different thing and its quite a fundamental and important question.

There’s some very good explorations if what we understand by Heaven and Hell also. For example, in summing up the chapter on Hell:

“To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God
has for us.
We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word “hell” works quite well.”

Rob writes very gently and graciously and even if you don’t agree with his position, you would need to work hard to take offence, the book is more about asking the questions than specifically finding the ‘right’ answers.

Rob likes the parable of the prodigal sons and he uses it in this book because it highlights both extremes of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, coexisting in the same place: it’s purely our response to God’s love and grace that defines which place we chose to exist in. Rob rounds up the story by saying:

“Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that (being good enough to deserve the father’s love or bad enough for it to disappear). The father’s love cannot be earned,

and it cannot be taken away.

It just is.

It’s a party.

The final chapter closes with a great passage that encapsulates both the continual restoration of all things into God’s “shalom” and our response to God, His love, forgiveness and grace.

“I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it. Whatever words you find helpful for describing this act of trust, Jesus invites us to say yes to this love of God,
again and again and again.”

The book is definitely worth a read, I have barely scratched the surface in reviewing it here, it is also the perfect companion to ‘After Magic‘ by Kester Brewin if you want to read two books together!

After Magic

I don’t get very many of them but having a holiday is good for me in many ways. One of them is that I can make some time to read. On holiday I read more of my bible, and I get to try and read some of the books stacking up on my reading list.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this year I have brought (and finished by day 2 of the holiday) the most recent Kester Brewin book “After Magic” a fairly slim volume but compelling and a cracking good read.

It could actually work as a final section to Kester’s previous book “Mutiny” – my all time favourite book of 2012, but it has rightly been written separately, as, though there are certainly some overlapping themes, shared material and concepts, to combine both into one volume might have clouded the ideas in ‘Mutiny‘ and been too much to absorb in one sitting.

Firstly, it is not for people that aren’t able to read with an open mind.
Secondly,it is a mature work of depth and whilst it deals with some complex theological and philosophical ideas, it is still clear and concise.
Thirdly, it is a profoundly challenging piece, sometimes paradoxical and regularly counter-intuitive, yet I found it difficult to outright disagree with anything in it.
Fourthly, I would encourage you to read it, whoever you are, whatever your belief system or background, I believe Kester has captured something radical, in as much as a radish is radical; something that returns to the roots of the Jesus movement, something that, if adopted by Christianity in general, could return people’s view of Jesus and his message to their compelling and beautiful origins.

I’ll begin with the basic premise of the book and then discuss a few points that came to me as I was reading it.

‘After Magic’, drawing on many contemporary and historic sources of literature and cinema, refers to a number of ideas revolving around the structure of a magic trick: “the pledge”, “the turn” and “the prestige”.

  • ‘The Pledge’ – showing the audience something ordinary and ‘unchanged’.
  • ‘The Turn’ – making that ‘ordinary’ object ‘extra-ordinary’ (making it disappear or something similar).
  • ‘The Prestige’ – bringing that ordinary object back again.

Whilst people enjoy a good magic show, they don’t really believe what they see is actually magic, nor do they want the ‘trick’ completely explained because then it will loose it’s mystery and excitement. What people do is temporarily suspend their disbelief to participate and fully enjoy the spectacle.

The central theme to Kester’s book is that all superheroes need to renounce their super powers to actually reveal their true humanity. Kester argues that this is true in the dance with the divine also, the unrealistic and infinite demands of the gods that are worshipped, on route to them offering us meaning and power, purpose and wealth.

Kester makes a good case for the structure of a magic trick being adopted in the gospel story, with a slight twist on the traditional angle:

  • The Pledge: Revealing Immanuel – God with us
  • The Turn: Christ crucified
  • The Prestige: The resurrection of Jesus and his subsequent charge to his disciples to be his body acting as him in this physical world

Kester posits That only in renouncing his divinity and revealing himself through the medium of his human son can God truly divest himself of these infinite demands that we believe he has of us and only by moving through and beyond the super-natural, the belief that God is going to step in and magic things better for us in our tricky situation, and embracing real love in the way we live on his planet, can we truly be released to live out the life outlined by Jesus in Matthew 25 (and incidentally that of Mathew 5 also).

I feel like the underlying message of ‘After Magic’ is about living as if God did not exist, so that we use the abilities and power God has invested within us to work through all the challenges we face with real love, and not wait around for some supernatural intervention to make things right again.

I think that works as an argument. I don’t deny that there are times when God does step in and act in supernatural ways, I’ve met too many people, heard too many true stories and observed and experienced this on too many occasions to say that, but if we live in a way that is always waiting for the supernatural to happen to correct things, if we only worship out of some desire to appease or win favour, then we deny the power of God to work through people.

To get a genuine clear grasp of the depth of Kester’s ideas, you do really need to read the book, my summary skips a lot of important stuff and is rather a skim through. It’s a great read, well worth both your time and money.

A couple of ideas that came to me on reading the book:

I wondered whether some of the references to some of the writers (film and book) were drawing on an approach that they are essentially attempting to portray that “humans do really have all the answers to the problems of this world, future, etc. if only we look deep enough inside ourselves.” I’m not sure whether I do fully subscribe to this view and I’m not sure if Kester is actually supporting it. There is a reference in the book to an approach to Christianity that relies on people attempting to earn salvation and do the work of saving humanity themselves. I would echo Rob Bell’s words from “Love Wins” which say in reference to Philippians 3 “Let us live up to what we have already attained.”

“The Father has taken care of everything.
It’s already there,
ready,
waiting.
It’s always been there,
ready,
waiting…

…Jesus forgives them all,
without their asking for it.

Done. Taken care of.”

All that is left to do is to carry on displaying this God and this Christ in the way we live, in love as humans.

Which takes me to the next point which Kester looks at in his last chapter which is a fitting conclusion to the book.

On ‘living as though God doesn’t exist’, Kester suggests this naturally leads to the outworking of Matthew 1:21, in that we live from, through and out of that love, that we are saved from our selfishness and other destructive behaviours.
That really resonates with me and in a very real way, it will manifest ‘Immanuel’ – God with us, because God is love and this fits neatly with Kester’s interpretation of the phrase “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

So. Go and buy the book, you won’t regret it. http://www.kesterbrewin.com/aftermagic/

Third World Symphony

Shaun-Groves-Third-World-Symphony-iTunes-banner-728x90

Before 16th September 2011, I had never heard any music by Shaun Groves!
However, I have been a regular reader of his blog for several years.
In the process of releasing his latest album, Shaun had released various pre-mastered, development versions of his song “All is Grace“, none of which I listened to, yet I still bought the album. In fact, I pre-ordered the album and then I bought it on iTunes too.

Before you think I’m completely mad doing this, there are two reasons why I chose to do this.

  1. I wanted to listen to the album in its entirety without any previous Shaun Groves music experience so I could write as objective a review as possible.
  2. I bought into the reasons Shaun was writing the music, I resonate completely with the way he lives and the principals he subscribes to and the background to why he wrote the album.

The reason I went “crazy” not only contributing to the ‘Kickstarter’ project to raise money for Shaun to record in the first place and pre-ordering the CD, but also buying the digital version was that I believe in what Shaun was doing / trying to do / is doing.

So Here goes.

Since I bought it, I’ve listened to almost nothing else on my iPod (save for a couple of Mars Hill / Gerard Kelly podcasts). Because the album is that good.

The album as a whole is ‘bite-sized’, it takes just over 37 minutes to listen to which is, I think comparatively short in album terms. That’s no criticism, I like how you can listen to the whole thing fairly quickly and have a really nice overview of the music and lyrics.

The things that most struck me about the album as a whole are the clarity of Shaun’s voice and the excellent instrumental balance throughout. I really love the mandolin and banjo in there and the rhythm section discreetly sets the whole thing off very well.
Somehow, though it’s all new music, new songs, new words, none of which I’d heard before, the album immediately had a familiarity which I can only attribute to the fantastic ability of the profoundly gifted songwriter and musically mature creative spirit that Shaun shows himself to be in this album.

The only drawback for me, which is purely a personal preference is the flute on some of the tracks. Possibly because it seems from the credits that it must have been a synthesized flute not a real one (I might need to be corrected by Shaun on that?) but possibly because I have an incomprehensible, inexplicable dislike of the flute.

Initially I thought that there were too many ‘2 bars intro then add the vocals’ type of tracks, but the more I listen to it, the less that strikes me and I think the balance of differing styles of the songs fit really neatly together.

On to the individual tracks. All lyrics can be found at the Third World Symphony lyrics page.

  1. All Is Grace
    What an opener! (aside of my mild annoyance at the flute bit) Every time I listen to this track, I get shivers down my spine. The clear tone of Shaun’s voice, coupled with the lovely jangle of the mandolin makes a beautiful rolling, building song that naturally climaxes through the choruses and the unresolved ending is so completely fitting. Leaving the end of the song on an unresolved chord immediately gives me images of this ongoing journey, echoing the sentiments of the lyrics that “You have loved us all so We love all”, It’s not a process that is finished, It’s something that continues daily, hourly, remembering the Love God has for us, evoking our response to love others as part of our expression of love for God.
    My lovely wife was slightly confused by the breathy way that Shaun sings “All” for “All is grace”, making it sound a bit like “Hall is grace”. For me, I quite like it but then I knew the title and the lyrics and she didn’t when she first heard it.
  2. Come By Here
    Another ripsnorter of a song, it’s catchy it sticks in your head, the words again are delicately sung and right ‘on the button’: a plea for God to bring his Kingdom here on earth sooner, not for selfish reasons or personal gain, but for the good of the world, especially the downtrodden and rejected.
    I particularly love the tinglefactor that I get from the combination of the musical pause and Shaun’s impassioned “come and meet us here” at the beginning of the final chorus.
  3. Kingdom Coming
    With similar sentiments to the previous song, I might have put this song much later in the album, maybe even at the end, not just because of that, but also because of the cascading, more fully orchestral-style climax of the song, which lends it to be a bit of a ‘showstopper’ or finale piece. Once again, I like the open, unresolved chord that it ends on, musically creating the expectation, the anticipation and eagerness for God’s Kingdom to come fully as well as the ongoing call for it to come through us in the way we live.
  4. Sing
    Another solid, catchy melody. I like the song, I don’t have a lot else to say about it!
  5. Awake My Soul
    Shaun has infused this song with ‘essence of good quality indy-brit-pop’ and reminded me of all the bits of Radiohead that I really enjoyed. The feeling of the chord sequences took me back to (weirdly enough) “Karma Police” from “OK Computer” though quite different in content! The other song it brought back to me was “True Love” by “Phil Wickham” which is probably a more flattering comparison.
    Similarities to other songs to one side, I love this song, the haunting tune and guitar with plenty of reverb on it give it the feeling of a passionate appeal to the apathetic heart of middle-class, wealthy, comfortable Christianity to really respond to the longing love call of our intimate God.
  6. I’ve Got You
    I think this song is lovely. Shaun wrote a blog post about what inspired him to write that track and reading it, combined with the simple beauty of this song, both musically and lyrically, never ceases to soften my hard, cold, cynical heart.
    As soon as I get a link to the original post (because it has disappeared!) I’ll stick it in here, it’s worth reading.
  7. Enough
    This song is fantastic in every way even though the upbeat, bouncy tune seems to be slightly out of keeping with the subject material in my mind. First time I heard it, it made me think of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” (also a fabulous track).
    The theology behind the song is so right and yet so far from the experience of so many western Christians and more to the point non-Christian observers. Which is a shame but also the very reason EVERYBODY needs to listen to this album. Shaun Writes here and here about ‘Enough’ (and in plenty of other places in his blog). Shaun is a man that lives what he believes and it’s a fantastic way to show the Gospel – your life displays the Gospel of Jesus when it looks like good news for other people, not just yourself.
  8. No Better
    This might be my least favourite song on the album, (despite the great mandolin work) though I do still like it. Partly because I’ve never really got into country or bluegrass and partly because I guess it speaks most revealingly to my own vulnerabilities, sins and shortcomings. When a song like this shines it’s spotlight on your life, it gets pretty uncomfortable. For me, it’s a timely reminder not to judge others, because as Shaun says “I’m no better”.
    That said, the chorus is pretty catchy and sticks in the head. One other thing… it seems to end a bit abruptly.
  9. Down Here
    Listening to ‘Down Here’ always brings a lump to my throat and I’ve been pretty close to tears a few times. It’ beautiful and compelling, music fits the words like a glove and the symphonic nature of the climactic second chorus is something of a musical masterpiece.
    The epilogue section of the song really rounds it off to be filled with truth and hope, the kind of hope that speaks to the heart of all people that ‘death does not have the last word’ because we believe in resurrection and in the words of Rob Bell, “resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world”.
  10. Just as I am
    Shaun added this traditional song at the end of the album for some very good reasons. And I won’t steal his words so you can read them for yourselves here and here.
    I really love this version of the song with Shaun’s extra words.

I mentioned my lovely wife earlier, and she’s generally not a massive fan of music that isn’t classical in genre, being a very talented lady with an honours degree in music, but she really liked the album too. A definite sign it’s really, really, really good.

You really should buy this album, from iTunes, or Amazon or Direct.
I Promise, Promise Promise I’m not getting any commission. Shaun doesn’t even know me, but You Have to hear it, buy it, support it. And if you like, Go sponsor a child too, it’s a really good and fun thing to do.

Listen to the album below.
Third World Symphony by shaungroves

Move over Tycho Brahe, Shaun Groves is my new hero

He may not be a world renowned astronomer, he may not wear a false copper-alloy nose, he probably doesn’t own an alcoholic elk, and I’m darn sure he doesn’t have a clairvoyant dwarf to entertain his dinner guests, but Shaun Groves is alive now and he has just released what I personally would describe as one of the most important albums of all time!!

If that sounds pretty extravagant in praise, you haven’t hear the album yet, nor do you know all the background behind it.
If you want to get the low-down on why and how this album was ‘squeezed out’ of Shaun, you really should trawl through the last few years of his blog. Not only is his music fantastic, but the thought processes behind it, the stories that have shaped it, the heart he pours into it are admirable, laudable and inspirational!

If you are a Christian, you need to hear this album because it will remind you of the kind of bible-based life you promised to lead when you said you would follow Christ.

If you are a non-Christian, you need to hear this album because it speaks the very heart of the Christian message in a way that cuts through all the rubbish that we Christians have piled up against it for centuries.

This album is beautiful, compelling, challenging, convicting and frankly AWESOME.

It’s easily worth several times more than it costs, which incidentally is another reason why I chose discretion over business acumen and avoided putting an affiliate link to it on my blog!

I’m going to review it in full over the next few days / weeks and post my praise of this piece of musical genius that I have not been able to get out of my head nor stop listening to for over a week now since it arrived on my door mat.

Oh, did I mention… I really like Shaun Groves’ new album!??! You really should go and buy yourself a copy.

You can find Shaun Groves on twitter @shaungroves or facebook/shaungroves too.

p.s. No, I didn’t get paid to write this, I just really love the album.

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