Amazing Love

As we end the first month of a new year, it is valuable to contemplate God’s grace and amazing love for his people.  In the following article, Caroline Bennett reviews CDs by three different Christian artists which focus on praising God and seeing his steadfast love everywhere.

amazing-grace-collage-2O my Strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love. -Psalm 59: 17 (ESV)

Though music of all genres can cause Christians to rejoice in the Lord, music written specifically to praise God can be especially edifying. There are many Christian artists out there, so it can be rather difficult to figure out whose music to listen to. A good way to decide is to ask two questions: are the lyrics thought-provoking and in accordance with Scripture, and is the music interesting and well written? Mosaic, Storm, and Rise in the Darkness are three albums featuring songs that answer “yes” to these questions.

mosaicThough most famous for his bluegrass tunes, Ricky Skaggs demonstrated his ability to cover more than one genre when he released Mosaic five years ago. The first song, the titular track, is a grand introduction into the themes Skaggs sings about throughout the album: the grace, providence, and everlasting faithfulness of God. It reminds Christians that though their roles in this world may seem small and insignificant—a mere shard of colored glass— they need to look at the bigger, more glorious picture of God’s redemptive plan. Every song on Mosaic revolves around this idea, but each has a unique sound and story to tell. One of the most creative songs on the album is “My Cup Runneth Over,” with lyrics that help Christians understand Psalm 23 anew: “You ask is it half empty / you ask is it half full /… If I give a different answer/ would you think of me a fool / It’s none of the above/ ‘cause it’s all of the above | My cup runneth over….His love poured out for me.” The wonderful thing about Mosaic is that one can listen to the album over and over again, and still realize something new and wonderful about the songs every time. And Mosaic only has a tinge of bluegrass to it, so even Christians who don’t care for bluegrass should still be able to enjoy listening to this powerful album.

stormAnother album that praises God for his mercy is Storm, released in 2002 by Christian artist Fernando Ortega. The album features a mix of old hymns—“Jesus Paid it All,” “Come Ye Sinners”—as well as new songs written by Ortega. The combination of Ortega’s voice, the piano, the guitar, and other instruments creates a lush sound that is a trademark of Ortega’s albums. Storm is suitable for all occasions. As its name implies, it is wonderful music for dreary weather, for its songs of redemption drive away all melancholy. The album is also quite fitting for those on the road with the opening track “Traveler.” However, the chorus of this song reveals that this is more than just a road trip song; it is a song that Christians need to voice every day: “Heavenly Father, / Remember the traveler / Bring us safely home / Safely home.”
Nathan Clark George is another Christian songwriter and performer who has released a number of albums in the past decade. Rise in the Darkness is one of his best, featuring a variety of songs. On it, George does an amazing job of putting almost word-for-word Scripture passages to music, such as Psalm 127 and Isaiah 58. rise-in-the-darknessYet Rise in the Darkness also features songs he has written lyrics for, including “What if I Were in the Garden?” In this song George admits that, although he would like to think that he would have been faithful to Jesus on the night of his arrest, he would have been just as weak as the disciples. Nevertheless, George rejoices in the thought that, despite his great depravity, God has poured his love out on him and shown him grace. George also performs arrangements of the well-known hymns “Not What My Hands Have Done” and “Nettleton.” Though George’s songs tend to be very quiet and contemplative—he is most often accompanied by acoustic instruments like the guitar and violin—Rise in the Darkness is nevertheless a loud witness to Christ’s work on the cross, and reminds Christians of their need to exhibit God’s love and mercy to others.

Mosaic, Storm, and Rise in the Darkness are wonderful albums for many reasons. They are well done musically, with beautiful melodies and instrumentation. Best of all, however, is the message they propound: man is a sinner, desperately needing a Savior, and God has shown his love to his people by sending Christ Jesus. When Christians listen to these three albums, they can truly rejoice with the psalmist in the God who “shows steadfast love.”

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

♪ George, Nathan Clark. Rise in the Darkness. Nathan Clark George, 2006.

♪ Ortega, Fernando. Storm. Word Entertainment, 2002.

♪ Skaggs, Ricky. Mosaic. Skaggs Family Records, 2010.

Outlaws of Time

Sam Miracle’s life has always been unusual.  He lives in a foster home in the Arizona desert with 11 other boys, has unbendable arms due to an accident he doesn’t recall, and experiences powerful daydreams in which he always dies.  Life only gets stranger when he learns his daydreams are true and only a time-traveling priest has kept Sam from being destroyed by the villain Sam is destined to stop.  Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N. D. Wilson is a Wild West fantasy mixed with plenty of time travel and adventure.

Although the story contains scenarios similar to other time travel stories, such as the villain going back in time to kill a younger version of Sam (The Terminator) and Sam repeating events in his life over and over again so he can find a way to succeed (Edge of Tomorrow), the story is very unique, and even the parts which are reminiscent of other time travel stories have many differences.

outlaws-of-timeThe team of friends, old and new, that joins Sam to protect him and help him beat his nemesis “El Buitre” is a motley cast of characters.  At first, Sam’s “Ranch Brothers” from the foster home just look after him and find him when he wanders off into the desert during his daydreams, but when an outlaw comes to kill Sam, the foster boys are prepared to stop him so their friend can escape.  Gloria, or “Glory” as Sam dubs her, is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Spalding, who run the foster home St. Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch.  Glory proves a steadfast and brave friend, ready to take on time travel, villains, and whatever other surprises await her and Sam.  Father Atsa Tiempo is a mysterious character who can travel through time.  He is Sam’s oldest friend, and his mission is to keep Sam alive so Sam can kill El Buitre, an outlaw who can control time like Father Tiempo and plans to use this power to conquer the world.

Sam, as the only person who can stop El Buitre, is caught right in the middle of all the dangerous, twisting action.  Sam’s friends are ready to sacrifice themselves over and over for him, but Sam doesn’t want to keep running away to live to fight another day.  Will he ever be quick enough to stop the Vulture?  Will he ever live to try?  How many of the people Sam cares about is he willing to lose along the way?

N. D. Wilson has written another novel that will take readers on a wild ride, not through Henry’s Kansas from 100 Cupboards or Charlie’s swamps from Boys of Blur, but through the deserts, cacti, and danger of the untamed American west.

Colony House

A Little Backstory

A friend recently introduced me to an excellent video interview between Eugene Peterson and Bono discussing the Psalms and how modern music should draw more from them (see interview here). During the interview, Bono made a broad statement questioning the authenticity/honesty of the majority of Christian music, and while I would agree that a lot of mainstream ‘Christian’ music is pretty anemic, an article on the interview by Andrew Peterson (here) offered an alternative perspective that I have found provocative and helpful. All that to say, Peterson’s article also provided a list of what he called excellent Christian music, and so I decided to track down some of the bands that he mentioned beginning with one called ‘Colony House’.

Colony House

Based out of Nashville, TN, Colony House has been making music since 2009. Made up of a quartet of musicians, including two brothers, they sport a clean indie-rock sound. As of now, only two full length albums exist (one that just came out this year), and so I have only listened to When I Was Younger which was released in 2014.

The band has a bright sound that was surprisingly appealing to me -especially since I tend to prefer heavier and darker music. However, despite their brighter instrumental sound, the lyrics address a wide variety of struggles: loss, love, the future, growing up; thus providing depth and making the songs eminently relatable. In fact, the lyrical/music combination packs a punch similar to the rawness of a lot of modern hiphop/rap artists while providing what is arguably a more musical experience. Part of what makes their music so appealing to me is that they can sing about very real struggles, but do so in the context of redemption and the hope that we as Christians have in our Savior.

While Colony House is only the first band on Peterson’s list that I have explored to this point, I have to say that they are excellent and worth a listen. With their bright and approachable sound, lyrical depth, and redemptive outlook, they offer a beautiful, authentic, and relatable album that can be enjoyed for both its musicality and content. Now on to the next artist on Peterson’s list.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I knew why my mother had come, but I still pretended to be surprised. Not moving my gaze from my watch on the valley, I spoke to her. “Careful, mother. This is the third time you have visited me in as many weeks. One would almost think us a close-knit family.”

“Olwen,” she simply said, coming towards me.

“I’m touched, of course, as much as I can be…”

“Olwen,” she interrupted me. “He is not coming.” She sat down next to where I stood, motionless, still looking down into the valley.

“Yes, he is,” I told her, clinging to the fading hope that the very next moment, or the moment following, or the moment after that, I would see him riding over the valley’s edge, coming to me.

“Olwen, it has been two full cycles of the moon,” my mother pleaded. “It is not meant to be.”

“Why not?” I snapped. “There is still time. He could simply still be mustering his forces, or maybe misfortune befell him on his quest to find me and he is still untangling himself, or maybe…” I broke off, for even I could hear the ridiculous desperation in my voice.

I expected her to offer a rebuttal, to tell me the road from his castle to my mountain was a short journey through pleasant country, and that the only calamity he might have met was that his horse could have thrown a shoe or a rain shower might have doused him. But she did not, for she knew that I knew.

She had always said I was the most cunning of all her children. I remembered the first time I saw him, how I knew instantly that he was the one I wanted. How I had used all my skills and wits to entrap him. I thought I had done everything right. I thought he would come for me, my prince, my knight in shining armor, and what games we would play before his end. And yet here I was, alone, spiritless and hungry.

I finally dropped my gaze away from the horizon, and stared down at the gray stone at my feet. “Why, mother?”

My mother let out a sound of contempt. “He is a coward, Olwen, plain and simple,” my mother told me. “He is afraid to face you, as he ought. He has always been afraid. Why else would he travel with so many guards, as you described? You told me that was why you did not go to him at once, when you first saw him. He is not worthy of your devotion”

I knew she spoke the truth, but I was not ready quite yet to let it go. “I thought I had done everything right,” I fretted. “I made myself known to his subjects, I walked within sight of his walls, I even killed and ate his bride-to-be…”

My mother waved her claws. “He is a weak, fickle human,” she said, matter-of-factly. She rose on her hind legs and sniffed the air. “Come, my daughter. Let us go down into that valley of yours and catch us a deer, for I smell the scent of many on the wind.”

I got up and stretched, unfolding my wings. I let out an experimental breath of fire. Man or no man, I was still myself.

After the hunt, as we feasted on twelve of the deer that ran rampant through the valley, my mother turned to me and bared her teeth in a smile. “You will learn, my child. But in one thing you have done very well. You have chosen a good spot for your lair, my little dragonling.”

Review: The Imitation Game

The following is an evaluative critique of The Imitation Game I wrote for a composition class last year. I discovered after choosing my topic and position that my teacher really liked the film, but fortunately she was good-natured enough to hear out my alternate perspective…

What forms the core identity of a person? Is it their accomplishments, their beliefs, their sexuality, or something greater? This is an enigma that baffles many, including, unfortunately, the creators of The Imitation Game, a biopic about Alan Turing. An eccentric mathematician, Turing was responsible for cracking German encrypted communications during World War II, indirectly saving millions of lives. The Imitation Game decodes Turing’s remarkable story into a film less than two hours, and the result, while highly watchable and well-acted, confines itself to generic characterizations and contrived plot devices that ultimately make the movie forgettable.

The film’s setup seems promising: Great Britain is fighting the Nazi menace, and they are losing. A major difficulty is that the Germans communicate using Enigma, a machine that encrypts communications, keeping Allied forces in the dark about German plans. To find a way to break Enigma, the British recruit Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician with a severe inability to work with others. The Imitation Game follows Turing’s work aiding the British war effort alongside fellow cryptanalysts Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).

The movie is well cast—Cumberbatch, Knightley, Mark Strong, and others do justice to their respective roles. Also, audiences will appreciate the cinematography—a simple but colorful treatment that seems fitting: no flashy special effects here, but instead a style that supports the plot without drawing attention to itself.

These elements sound like the makings of a great biopic, and they are, but the filmmakers don’t quite crack the code to fitting them together. The film attempts to touch on all aspects of Turing for which he is known—his work as a cryptanalyst, his contributions to computer science (Turing Machines—the foundation of modern computing), his contributions to the world of artificial intelligence (the Turing Test), his contributions to the war effort, and his sexuality.

With all these threads to pull from, it is disappointing that The Imitation Game offers only shallow characterization. The movie attempts to capture the homosexual aspect of Turing’s identity in the film, but the different threads—Turing’s close friendship with his classmate Christopher Morcom in middle school and other events—don’t connect with the rest of the film or Turing’s character. They are random asides, possibly thrown in to make us empathize more with Turing, but instead they will leave audiences scratching their heads, “What was the point of that scene?” The real Turing remains as much of an enigma after watching the film as before. Stringing together vignettes to create more a highlights reel of Turing’s life than an actually enlightening portrait of the man, Turing’s character is hardly developed beyond the description “eccentric yet socially stunted genius.” This is a role that, while Cumberbatch plays well, seems a bit too similar to Sherlock Holmes. And Sherlock Holmes is more interesting.

Even worse, the plot, while it offers a few surprises, mostly recycles dramatic situations and moral conundrums that audiences have seen before in other war films and dramas. The result feels contrived, a poorly conceived imitation of better films. There is a point in the movie where Turing learns the importance of working as a team and having allies, but this lesson seems very forced and only heightens the sense that many of the characters only exist to move the plot forward. Turing’s team of cryptanalysts is portrayed (with the exception of Clarke) as a crew of idiots saved only in their efforts by the genius of Turing. They exist for morale support throughout much of the film, coming through as a team for Turing when he is about to be fired but otherwise remaining one-dimensionally in the background. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal I don’t know, but either way, it does not make for interesting drama.

So despite having, on paper, all the elements of a compelling biopic—a solid cast, interesting subject matter, and plenty of story to work with—The Imitation Game fails to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Even though it is available on Netflix now and might look tempting, for compelling stories about eccentric geniuses, look elsewhere.