O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die, so that, living and dying, we may be thine… — The Book of Common Prayer

I was sad to read the other day that bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (sometimes called Dr. Ralph Stanley, for his honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University) had died. I’ve never studied his catalogue in depth, but like everyone else, I knew his performance of “O Death” from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Originally, it wasn’t meant to be a bare-bones acappella number, but Stanley convinced the producers to let him sing it Primitive Baptist style, like the church where he grew up: no banjo, no guitar, no nothin’. Just Ralph’s reedy, old man voice, asking death to spare him over ’til another year.

When I first heard “O Death,” I thought it was one of the most remarkable songs I’d ever heard. Though virtually tuneless, it is arresting, even riveting, in Dr. Stanley’s able hands. It has the primal quality of so many early American folk songs—the kind of songs that are unerringly in tune with all that we know, and love, and fear. There is no cheap sentiment here, no sanctimony or pious platitude to cover the naked truth.

If you look closely at the lyrics, you can tell that the speaker is meant to be a younger man who is not yet ready to die. He’s being tended by his mother, and he asks the ice-cold specter to “please consider his age.” This makes it all the more striking for Stanley to cover it as an old man full of years. The phrase “please consider my age” takes on a different meaning, almost like a private joke between Old Ralph and Old Death.

It’s welcome news that Stanley remained implacably Christian to the last. This adds yet another layer to this, his most haunting performance. It is a reminder that Death is merely the means of separating soul from body. It summons us to heaven or to hell, but God alone decides which. I close my eyes and try to picture Stanley as he must be now: as C. S. Lewis said, a creature of surpassing brightness which, if you could see it, you would be strongly tempted to worship.

Well what is this that I can’t see,
With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me?
Well I am death, none can excel,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.

VidAngel is Being Sued, But It’s Probably Just as Well

In recent months, you may have noticed ads for a relatively new movie filtering service called VidAngel. Based in Utah (probably owned by a bunch of Mormons), it operates on a buyback model, where moviegoers can buy a movie, stream it through VidAngel’s content filters, then sell it back to VidAngel within 24 hours for a net loss of only $1. Well, sort of. Technically, if you read the fine print, you were paid back in VidAngel credit, so that you’d get a discount on the next movie you rented with them. See what they did there?

Anyway, it didn’t take long for Disney, Fox, Lucasfilm inter alia to notice the company in a legal way. You can read all about the team they’re assembling for the defense, posted last week on their blog.  They seem confident about their chances, believing they’ve discovered a loophole that will allow them to continue operating. The comments on this article provide good summaries of the state of the law and theories about how good their case actually is. Not being a legal expert, I’ll let others make those predictions. At any rate, this kind of legal battle is merely the latest in a long string of Hollywood vs. Mormon Video Editing Outfit battles. I’ll let you figure out who typically comes out on top, although in fairness, the most recent one was decided in the Mormon company’s favor, using the same legal team VidAngel is now hiring.

To be honest, I find it difficult to care who wins or loses this case. In fact, given the way this particular site has compiled and marketed its content, I can think of a couple reasons why it might be just as well if it went away.

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Orlando Aftermath: Between Sentiment and Vitriol

Police in Orlando direct family members away from the scene of the shooting.

There has been no shortage of Christian think pieces about Orlando in the last 36 hours. Almost without exception, their headlines are variations on the “here’s how Christians ought to react” theme. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. It’s the template Christian pundits are expected to follow in the wake of any national atrocity. But I trust my readers to decide for themselves how they choose to react to the events of Sunday morning. So I simply offer my observations on the Orlando aftermath, in hopes that they will distinguish themselves in some way from what you have already encountered.

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The Transgender Phenomenon: Why Mark Yarhouse is Dead Wrong

As usual, I am approximately two weeks behind the hot issue of the week, but in this particular case, since literally nobody else is out there saying what I’m about to say, I figured what the heck. Might as well get out there and offend someone.

The name “Mark Yarhouse” might not ring a bell with the average reader. He’s a Christian psychiatrist at Regent College who has conducted multiple studies on gender and sexuality and is touted by outlets like Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition as “the leading Christian scholar” on gender dysphoria. A full bio is available here (which includes other resumee items like the facilitation of various “dialogues” between homosexuals and Christians). Last year, he wrote a long-form piece for Christianity Today condensing the highlights of his book Understanding Gender Dysphoria. A couple weeks ago, he appeared on their podcast to weigh in on the bathroom wars and Obama’s executive order.

Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to what Christianity Today is up to these days. They lost me a while ago. But since this recent interview with Yarhouse was highlighted in the newsletter for Summit Ministries, a solid conservative organization for whom I’ve been freelancing this past year, I was curious. As soon as I had clicked their link and realized Yarhouse was the guest, my heart sank, because I knew just what to expect. And it’s hardly “helpful,” “thoughtful,” “useful,” or any of the other milquetoast adjectives that have been used to describe Yarhouse’s work.

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Questions and Answers, Memorial Day Edition: Fortunate Sons

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.

— Sam’s song from The Return of the King

It’s been far too long since I visited this column, now several years old (catch up on past entries here if you’re new to the site). So, I’m reviving it by pairing up two songs that hold especially poignant significance for Memorial Day, or really for any day where we reflect on the costly sacrifices of our military servicemen, living and dead.

On the “Question” side, we have Bruce Hornsby’s shattering song “Fortunate Son,” based on the tragic life and death of Vietnam veteran Lewis Puller. On the “Answer” side, a song by Rich Mullins called “I’ll Carry On,” which is open to more than one interpretation but can naturally be read in the voice of a young man going to war.

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Donald Trump and the Corruption of Captain America

Captain America Hail Hydra

The Internet exploded this past week over the release of a new Captain America comic that reveals him to be an undercover villain with Hydra. For readers who don’t keep up with all things Marvel, Hydra is a black ops Nazi off-shoot infiltrating high places in the U. S. government. So for Captain America, historic foe of the Nazis, to be Hydra…well, this counts as a Really Big Deal in Marvel world. Now, happily for those of us who ignore the comics and just enjoy the Captain America and Avengers movies, Disney most likely knows its demographic better than to follow suit. And given that Cap’s character arc in the Cinematic Universe was planned long before this comic hit the market, it seems safe to say that the Steve Rogers we know and love will remain unsullied.

But for the foreseeable future, Comic Book Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, is bad. What’s more, the writers have gone out of their way to assure readers that this is “not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.” Still, some have made a plausible case (language warning) that given the nature of comic books, even the newly villainous Cap won’t be sullied forever. What with Galactic Infinity Gems And Stuff floating around, even I could make up some day-saving nonsense involving a parallel reality. Who knows? It’s a stupid comic book, and the only rule of stupid comic books is that quite literally anything can happen.

So, why am I wasting time writing about a stupid comic book? Why should you waste your time reading what I have to write about a stupid comic book? Why does this matter?

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Why I’m Not Excited About Austin Petersen

As the numbing reality has set in that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, many conservatives are frantically casting about for a third choice. Google searches for libertarian party candidates have sky-rocketed, and one name in particular has been generating a lot of buzz: Austin Petersen. Like other libertarian candidates, Petersen had about zero name recognition a month ago. Now, none other than Glenn Beck has officially endorsed him (after having campaigned hard for Ted Cruz).

Historically, libertarian candidates haven’t excited social conservatives, and with good reason: The libertarian party platform is officially liberal on core issues such as abortion and marriage. Indeed, Gary Johnson, the last libertarian candidate, “supports a woman’s right to choose up to the point of viability” (translation: believes it should be legal to murder babies). So how is Petersen different? The answer is that he’s pro-life. Well, at least, more pro-life than the average libertarian.

That’s an important caveat, one that can be lost in the headlines.

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What Bono Doesn’t Get About Christian Art

Last month, The Message author Eugene Peterson filmed a short conversation with Irish rocker Bono to discuss the Psalms. I know, it sounds like a Christian satire headline, but yes, this really happened. For younger readers who may be drawing a blank on “The Message,” it’s a Bible paraphrase that uses self-consciously casual language/colloquialisms. To give a sample of what this sounds like, here’s Peterson’s paraphrase of a repeated refrain of David’s from the Psalms: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?”

The Message also softens and subtly re-glosses some Bible passages that are harsher on sexual sin, which is not a coincidence given Peterson’s leftist leanings. Similarly, while Bono often talks about his Christian faith and has made Christian news as a result, he’s planted his flag very firmly with the left on issues such as gay “marriage.”

All of this is to say that neither Bono nor Peterson is exactly the most authoritative voice when it comes to sound exegesis, which makes me kind of amused that this video created such a stir in Christian circles. I simply fail to see what special insight they’re supposed to be offering that makes their conversation newsworthy.

But, newsworthy it apparently was, and one comment of Bono’s in particular prompted a number of responses. Reflecting on the range of passions and emotions that the Psalms express, Bono criticized Christian music, by contrast, for its “dishonesty.” Instead of settling for worship tunes, he wished Christians would write songs about their bad marriages or social injustice (as Bono put it, “being p**sed off at the government” — somehow I doubt an anti-Obama song would count).

In response, a number of people, including singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson (no relation to Eugene), protested that there’s plenty of honest Christian art out there, it’s just not on the radio. This could be called push-back, but it’s not the kind of push-back I would give. I would be much more blunt. I would tell Bono that he doesn’t understand what makes great Christian art. And I say that as someone who is almost invariably bored by CCM Top 40 and finds my attention wandering during most worship songs.

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CD Review: The Favorite Hymns of Fanny Crosby, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

Fanny Crosby is the most prolific hymn-writer in church history—so prolific that no matter what sort of hymns project an artist records, one or more of her tunes is bound to find its way onto it. So, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound reasoned, why not go all the way and just devote a whole album to nothing but Fanny Crosby tunes? This is a natural choice after they were included on a project putting some of her unpublished lyrics to new music (which I did not review, but you can hear samples from here). Haase also announced in a press release yesterday that they are planning to dig even further into her unpublished catalogue to write future tunes. This comes as welcome news to me, since, quite frankly, a lot of the music from other artists on the New Hymns project struck me as flat and uninspired. Haase, together with Wayne Haun, were a couple of the only people who seemed to “get it.”

But, for now, we have this project of old favorites to enjoy, and it’s a nice treat to tide us over while we wait for new tunes. Not content with by-the-numbers treatments, Signature Sound has worked hard to offer some original musical ideas, while still respecting these classic hymns. Here are my quick takes on each arrangement:

1. Blessed Assurance: Perhaps Crosby’s most covered tune, but Haase & Co. are up to the challenge of injecting some fresh life into it. The pace is slowed down for a deep southern-fried, bluesy take, anchored by Paul Harkey’s rumbling bass. Grandma might not be quite sure what to make of it, but as for me, “There’s a dobro and lots of B-3 Hammond” is all I need to know.

2. He Hideth My Soul: Oh good, somebody heard that I ordered more B-3 Hammond! But even without all the wonderful little touches from the full band, this arrangement could easily be an acoustic live number that brings the house down with nothing but four voices and a piano.

3. I Am Thine O Lord/Draw Me Nearer: This arrangement is mellow, but it keeps a steady beat going in the background. Devin McGlamery takes the lead, but I would have advised him to keep the vocal a bit simpler. The gentle accordion and guitar behind him don’t quite mesh with the runs he’s trying to do.

4. Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross: This beautiful lyric gets an almost lullaby-like treatment. I especially like the use of the pennywhistle. However, I’m less drawn to the use of spoken-word recitation for one of the verses. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that unless your name is George Younce or Hank Williams, I will most likely tune out when the singing turns to talking.

5. Pass Me Not: I can’t fault this arrangement, though from a pacing perspective, it may have been better to break the slowness with an upbeat number here. Once again, the accordion is used to subtle, tasteful effect behind close harmony. Newcomer Dustin Doyle gets a silky-smooth step-out.

6. Praise Him! Praise Him! After dropping some Celtic hints earlier in the project, this arrangement gives Miss Crosby a full bells-and-whistles Irish makeover. Well done, lads! Is it wrong to imagine the boys singing this lustily in a pub with foaming drinks in hand?

7. Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim Him: This fast-paced, nu-folk arrangement offers a foot-stomping, banjo-plucking good time (complete with “Heys!” in the background). It might remind younger listeners of Imagine Dragons in a rootsy moment. Older folks will just be clapping along and having a good time. Something for everyone!

8. Tell Me the Story of Jesus: This track continues the nu-folk flavor (again, if you follow some newer music, think OneRepublic’s “I Lived”), bringing the project to a close. Lyrically, it’s a nice touch to place this at the end of the album.

Eight tracks is a curious length for an album. I’m sure Signature Sound had their reasons for not including more, but I would have been interested in hearing more of their ideas, perhaps on a couple more vigorous tunes like “Redeemed.” As it is, this project is heavily skewed towards slower songs, which is not a bad thing, it just makes it a less than balanced full-album experience. But it’s more creative than the average hymns album, and it will offer some excellent live moments.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Prime cuts: “He Hideth My Soul,” “Redeemed,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!”

5 Films Every Christian Should See (Summit cross-post)

As you might have noticed, I haven’t even tried to keep up with the latest crop of Christian films, the most recent being God’s Not Dead 2. (Alas, if you were waiting with bated breath for my review of that one, y’all are on your own.) But it has gotten me to thinking: If I were to create a list of five films every Christian should see, what would it look like? Apparently, Summit Ministries was interested to know what it would look like as well, and you can read what I came up with here. The list I finally narrowed it down to was

It’s a Wonderful Life

Fiddler On the Roof

A Man For All Seasons

On the Waterfront

Chariots of Fire

This wasn’t planned, but I noticed that there’s a nice balance of film eras represented here. Each movie on the list represents a different decade. Also, all of them either won or were nominated for Oscars, including Best Picture: proof positive that there are natural, artistically excellent ways to meld faith and film-making.

Naturally, there are many other films I could have put on the shortlist that would also be well worthwhile for the Christian viewer. However, I wanted to keep it restricted to films that I knew would not pose any kind of problem for viewers with tight standards for language, violence and the like. (Hence the “every” in “every Christian.”) This includes films like Schindler’s List, which are certainly powerful but difficult for some people to watch. Far it be from me to guilt-trip anyone for not forcing themselves to see something they feel a check about. However, I can confidently say that all five of the films that did make the cut will reward the patience and interest of any Christian viewer. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on them over at Summit. So, what would your list look like?