CD Review: Stronger, by Taranda Greene

TaRanda Greene - "Stronger" PRE-SALE SPECIALAfter signing a batch of family acts, it was natural for fast-growing StowTown Records to add a soloist to their already impressive roster. It’s probably safe to say that they picked out the most naturally gifted one in southern gospel: Taranda Greene. Her debut album Stronger plays like a triumphant personal testimony to the griefs she’s experienced and overcome after losing her husband, Tony. She lends her flexible voice to a wide variety of sounds here, with a heavier urban emphasis than one might expect from an SG record. (Translation: White girl got soul!) The result may sometimes veer into over-the-top theatrics, but it’s a solid, entertaining piece of work, arriving just in time to land on everyone’s “Best of 2014″ lists.

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Video of the Week: The Little Akins

Regrettably, I can’t embed this video, as it’s on Facebook, but I was tickled pink by this bit of Sunday School improv from the young children of southern gospel group The Akins. I wonder where the boy got the idea to bang away on the drums like that! I’m also impressed by their use of syncopation. Way to go! It must be in the genes.

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Movie Review: The Judge

A good movie is hard to find. Bad writing, bad acting and even worse morals are the norm for much of what Hollywood is shoveling out these days. And more often than not, self-styled Important Films that Say Something wind up being thinly-disguised propaganda for the political left. Apparently, that rare breed of film that simply tells a story isn’t considered Important enough in and of itself.

While he has quietly voiced some conservative opinions, actor Robert Downey, Jr. seems like an unlikely candidate to lead a revival of substantial, thought-provoking movie-making. But the star who’s made millions in mainstream superhero flicks has surprised his fans by expressing a desire to do just that, with a production company he and his wife have co-founded themselves. The Judge is their debut project. And while the Hollywood establishment is wrinkling their noses at it, it appears that the majority of ordinary movie-watching Americans are giving it a thumbs up.

The film is billed as a courtroom drama, whose two main characters are a father (Robert Duvall) and son (Downey, Jr.) attempting to find reconciliation after decades of silence and bitterness. The father is the county judge, and the son, Hank, is an arrogant hotshot lawyer. (His tagline: “Innocent people can’t afford me.”) When their wife and mother dies, Hank’s return re-opens old family wounds. And just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, his father is involved in an accident that looks suspiciously like murder. What’s more, the Judge is suffering from memory loss and can’t recall any of it. There’s only one decent choice for Hank: Stay and defend his old man in court. But that may be easier said than done.

The father-son bonding premise intrigued me, and after watching this trailer, I was hooked by the acting and the writing (note: one crude slang term). I decided to see the film and give it my own verdict. My verdict is that The Judge is simultaneously the best and most frustrating movie I’ve seen all year.  Continue reading

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Hudson Taylor on Weeping For the Lost

Some time ago I ran across a re-telling of this story from Hudson Taylor on the interwebs. While searching for something simple but substantial to post here, I tracked down the original in Taylor’s own words thanks to archive.org. It’s a very compelling story about one particular man to whom he ministered physically and spiritually during his service in China.

Apparently, this fellow was a bit of a hard case. He had gangrene in his foot, and while he lived with a Christian family, he was violently hostile to any suggestion of Christianity. An attempt to bring a vicar to meet him ended with the man spitting on the vicar and yelling him out of the house. Eventually, his case was transferred to Hudson. For the first few days, Hudson reports that he concentrated solely on dressing the man’s foot properly. It was only after he had made progress and earned some gratitude from the man that he ventured to speak about Jesus. While the man didn’t react as violently as before, no doubt controlling himself because he still felt he owed something to Taylor, he wouldn’t budge either. All of Taylor’s attempts to share the gospel were met with sullen silence, as the man would literally turning his back on him at the end of each dressing session.

Thankfully, that was not the end of the story, and Taylor realized his words were indeed having an effect when he decided one day to give up, turning to go after wordlessly dressing the man’s wound. When he looked back before walking out the door, he saw the man staring at him in utter astonishment that he had broken the pattern. “He was never afterwards unwilling to be spoken to or prayed with, and within a few days he definitely accepted Christ as his Savior.” Though once convinced he would soon die, the man lived on for quite some time. In reflecting on the case, Hudson offers this meditation:

I have often thought since in connection with this case and the work of God generally of the words, ‘He that goes forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. Perhaps if we had more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire.  Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our own feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our lack of success.

(Read the entire story in Taylor’s words from the 1911 biography In Early Years: The Growth of a Soul) here.

If I may add a closing thought, this story reminds me how much I detest it when atheists express discomfort or outright contempt for Christian doctor missionaries who preach the gospel in addition to offering medical care. They blather on about the insidiousness of preaching to “a captive audience.” Those Christian doctors, how dare they try to manipulate poor sick people at their most vulnerable!

It seems apparent that those who would voice such a sentiment are the truly poor and the truly sick. But, I’m sure that Hudson Taylor would have wept for them as well.

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CD Review: Out On a Limb, by Wes Hampton

Out on a Limb (CD)Out On a Limb is a wide-release re-packaging of Gaither Vocal Band tenor Wes Hampton’s former table project Reality. It is his second solo effort, following 2011’s A Man Like Me, which I first reviewed at Southern Gospel Journal here. Blending Wes’s fresh, confident vocals with a batch of new songs from CCM hit-maker Sam Mizell and friends, it’s sure to satisfy most die-hard Hampton fans. But will it satisfy fans of great music and songwriting? Does it satisfy me as a fan of all of the above? And does anyone else think the cover looks like someone dropped a Land’s End photo shoot in the middle of a Gustav Dore engraving?

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Marriage in the Movies: Mrs. Doubtfire

 

Mrs. Doubtfire

“Once the father of your children is out of the picture, the only solution is total and lifelong celibacy. And if you violate that, heaven forgive you. Good luck!” — Mrs. Doubtfire

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After watching this film for the first time in my little Robin Williams marathon of a couple months ago, I knew it was an important one to address if I ever did a series like this. So today, we’ll continue our series on Marriage in the Movies with Mrs. Doubtfire.

The movie tells the story of an eccentric actor named Daniel Hillard, who goes to extreme lengths to stay in touch with his children when his wife files for divorce. “Extreme,” in this case, means applying for and getting a job as their nanny…in disguise. His new persona is a gentle, twinkle-eyed Scottish grandma, whom he hastily christens “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Turns out, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is Mrs. Hillard’s dream nanny—firm, kind, wonderful with the children, and constantly doling out little nuggets of life wisdom on a variety of topics, including marriage. But when another man enters the picture, things get very awkward very fast, and the question becomes not “whether” Daniel will lose his cover, but “when.”

The film, which became one of Williams’s most popular roles, is billed as a comedy. But it winds up feeling more like a tragedy, as the shattering effects of divorce are very convincingly presented. However, I wouldn’t mind so much if it stopped there. It may be depressing, but at least it’s truthful. What’s really pernicious about the thing is that by the end, it’s trying to sell audiences on the lie that maybe divorce isn’t so bad after all. That’s where it goes Importantly Wrong.

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Video: EHSS and J. Mark McVey Launch Inspiration of Broadway Tour

Ernie Haase recently shared this promotional video for Signature Sound’s new tour with J. Mark McVey. It includes some never-before-seen concert footage of all five vocalists together, as well as a list of the songs they’ve covered on their upcoming record. Wayne Haun also shares producer’s insights. I’m very impressed with the quality of the singing and the song selection, although I actually don’t know many of the songs. Among the ones I do recognize, I’m most excited about “Sunrise, Sunset,” which is one of the best songs from one of the greatest musicals ever, Fiddler On the Roof.

As usual, Ernie Haase is finding new ways to tap into a distinctly American musical heritage and put his group’s personal spin on it. Signature Sound has always been very good at doing that with a variety of styles. Broadway is a natural fit for the group, and with his veteran showmanship, J. Mark seems right at home with them. I especially enjoyed watching them all getting into “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”

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If Your Life Has Purpose, You Are Busy

The other day, one of my professors greeted us all in his charming German accent and asked “How are you?” I replied, “Busy. Very busy.” He said, “Good, good. Then it means your life has purpose. If you have a purpose, you are busy.”

This semester has really been snowing me under with the combination of graduate-level courses and my new assistantship duties. My days are long and densely packed. Even when I’m not in class, I constantly have my head in the books, because with classes this hard you can’t afford not to. But my schedule means I don’t have the little luxuries I’ve enjoyed in other semesters. I have to turn in graded work without having an extra day to be extra sure I’m doing it right. I’m not able to memorize everything I’d like to memorize. I don’t have time to write rambling notes to myself unpacking every concept thoroughly. I sometimes have to let one course lag while I focus on a particular assignment in another, then resign myself to the fact that there’s probably something I’ll forget to review before the first course’s midterm. (Either that, or turn in an incomplete assignment and let the professor who gives too much homework accept the fact that I have other classes to attend to!)

But even while all this is mentally and physically taxing, there’s a certain sense in which I’m proud of it. Continue reading

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Bryan Walker Leaves the Perrys

The Perrys are one of my favorite mixed groups, and Bryan Walker has been a key ingredient in keeping their sound going in the last few years. So it was with some sadness that I saw the news he was leaving. To give a bit of background on Bryan, he was actually introduced to the entertainment world before he was introduced to the world of southern gospel when he auditioned for American Idol. He received a golden ticket to Hollywood, but he didn’t make it to the live show. At that time, he was working as a policeman, but he decided to pursue his passion for music. He chose the Carpenters’ “Superstar” for his audition song and impressed with his judges with his smooth, versatile pop/country sound:

For another glimpse of his range, check out this acapella take on “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”:

Bryan has been one of southern gospel’s most polished voices in his tenure with the Perrys, and in my opinion his talent never quite got the recognition it deserved. But according to the press release, he now hopes to start a family with his wife, and most recently he has felt called to pastoral ministry:

When Bryan shared his decision to come off the road with the Perrys, it was focused on he and wife Bethany’s desire to spend more time together and eventually start a family. However, Bryan says the day after he gave his notice, he was at a revival at his home church and re-surrendered [to] the call to preach, a call he first surrendered to at age 18. “There is no doubt the timing is confirmation that God has a new season in store, and I’m excited for that. I would ask that you pray for my wife and me as we wait to see what this is actually going to look like in the future, and of course also please pray for the Perrys as they seek the person God would have for their group.”

Best wishes to Bryan. He will be missed.

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The Definitive Hymns: Be Thou My Vision

While I was pondering which hymn to feature next, the decision was made for me when one of my favorite men’s quartets recorded the definitive version of it just the other day.

If I were to quote the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” as it was originally written, you wouldn’t understand a word of it, because it was originally written as an Old Irish poem. Its exact date and authorship is speculative, and some attribute it to a 6th century saint. However, the woman who translated and versified it in the English form known today was Eleanor Hull, in 1912. There were many more verses in the original Irish than you will hear in a single English version. Among English versions today, you’ll typically hear “the standard four,” but occasionally, a lesser-known verse shows up. Here’s one revived by Revelation Trio (a great version, though not the one I chose for The Definitive):

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;

Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:

Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

The tune is very simple and a bit repetitive, which might begin to try the patience if arranged without some variety from verse to verse. I personally find that it doesn’t really get old. The ancient prayer is perfectly translated and fits the tune like a glove. It cuts through all the kitsch and the price tags and the baggage that have glommed themselves onto Christianity over the years and strips everything down to the essential elements: father and son, son and father. Continue reading

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