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Welcome to my blog, MB's Theological Thoughts. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, feel free to ask, either in a comment or an email. If it's a legitimate question, I'll do my best to answer it. Might take some thinking and some time, but again, I'll do my best.

24 September, 2010

The Difference Between CCM and CCM

Sunday I was thinking of the lyrics of Audio Adrenaline's Hands and Feet, a song about being God's hands and feet, going where He sends us and doing His bidding. It fits the "narrative" of Contemporary Christian Music very nicely: going and helping the poor, the needy, and whomever God wants us to. But there's something different about it. Not only are the guys of Audio Adrenaline master songwriters, but the message is not one of "I will because You want me to," but one of "I will because I want to share You." It's not preachy at all, unlike some of the stuff I now hear on the radio. This kind of thing has created a division in my mind about two varieties of CCM: Contemporary Christian Music and Cliché Christian Music. Let's discuss.

First, let me define the two terms. Contemporary Christian Music is an ever-evolving term referring to the various Christian music of the day. Back in the 80s it was Amy Grant, Kieth Green and Petra. Now, it's Chris Tomlin, Matthew West and Newsboys. I'll refer to this as CCM1 for the rest of the article. Cliché Christian Music (CCM2)is a broad subcategory of CCM1 that includes songs full of musical and theological clichés and tautological themes. For the sake of argument, even though CCM2 is technically a part of CCM1, I will separate them completely as if they were two separate categories.

Let's compare and contrast the musical styles of the two CCMs. CCM1 tends to feature innovation in musicality: timeless melodies and chord progressions that you can immediately recognize. A uniqueness between bands and from song to song also embodies CCM1. For instance, when you hear a Newsboys song, you can usually tell before Peter starts singing that it's a Newsboys song. Even people like Amy Grant have a uniqueness that characterizes their music.

Musical styles that fall within CCM2 tend to run together. Chord progressions tend to be a boilerplate standard: nothing unique, innovative or complex. The instrumentation tends to be another boilerplate standard: an acoustic guitar played by the lead singer and an electric guitar playing a melodic part; bass player in the background or not at all; drums playing simple rhythms and fills; the ensemble often accompanied by a string quartet, trio or just a violin or cello.

Another thing that characterizes CCM2 in my mind is what I call "poor instrumental writing". Two classic examples of this are Tenth Avenue North's songs Love is Here and By Your Side. The songs open with a moving guitar part that doesn't really fit the theme of the song. This out of place instrumentation is a sign of poor consideration when songwriting. Granted, almost every other song an the album is very well written, especially its most recent single, Hold My Heart, but these two will forever immortalize in my mind that Tenth Avenue North is new at this and sometimes takes their influence from CCM2, especially lyrically.

This brings me to another distinction, one which is much more noticeable to the listener. CCM1 has rhymes and messages that are unique, not the blindly obvious like "fun" and "sun" or "cool" and "pool". Relient K's Matt Thiessen is my songwriting idol; his melodies, instrumentation and lyrics are always fresh and usually deal with not just one issue, but all issues. His tongue-in-cheek writing style flows effortlessly, showcasing his God-given gift.

One song that lyrically encompasses CCM2 is The Wrecking's You Remain. The rhythms and melody are simple, the lyrics are obvious, and the instrumentation is plain and uninteresting. It may be true, but it seems very poorly written or written in a rush. Yes, the message is true, but it is full of Christian clichés. The same can be said for a lot of the songs praise teams play in church nowadays: How Great is Our God is full of a Christian boilerplate message. Yes, it's a good song, but it's still uninteresting musically and lyrically.

This brings me to another issue: some of these songs have come to belong to CCM2 solely because they are part of a standard set of songs that are easy to learn and easy to do wrong. How Great is Our God was a great song when my band first started covering it. But now that everybody and their dog plays this song for almost every P&W set, it's become an empty mass of words and notes. The meaning is gone. For a song to be a part of CCM1, it must retain its meaning even after hearing it a literal thousand times.

Preachiness is another huge factor that makes even the innovative Casting Crowns migrate toward CCM2. I'm always hearing "I owe this," and "I owe that;" and "I have to do this," and "I need to do that." Herein lies the theological separation between songs like Hands and Feet by Audio Adrenaline and Follow You by Leeland with Brandon Heath. The former song emphasizes "[touching] the world like You've touched my life," whereas the second paints serving the needy as the noblest calling, a sort of "Look at me, I'm following Christ. This is how we follow Christ." It seems preachy, like a calling. The truth of the matter is that every calling is different. Here at Walla Walla University, the Student Missions department is always trying to send people out as missionaries, painting it like it's a call for everybody. True, the Great Commission (which Follow Up strives to follow) tells us to go to all the world, but "all the world" is different for me than for, say, my friend Katelyn. She's heading to the Philippines, but I'm staying right here. Why? I have been called to be an at-home missionary. We're each following our callings.

The final distinguishing factors between CCM1 and CCM2 lie solely on the performers: arrangement and performance. You can take a dead song and breathe new life into it with a good arrangement. You can take a stupendous song and kill it with a bad arrangement. Performance goes hand in hand: preparation and practice are key; the audience can tell when you've not rehearsed. (More advice on this to come in later articles.) A good arrangement avoids musical clichés and chord progressions. And usually, the artist who most often performs the song has the best arrangement. It's a rule of thumb that is good to follow.

The differences between Contemporary Christian Music and Cliché Christian Music may be small, but they create a gap between the two almost as wide as the Grand Canyon. The vast majority of new CCM that I hear falls under CCM2, with the best artists relatively unknown in the "mainstream" CCM world. Why am I writing this? I don't really know. But I want to distinguish between what I want to hear and don't want to hear, and I don't want to hear the same old, tired songs that have lost meaning. I don't want to hear dumbed down arrangements. And sure as the rising sun, I don't want to be preached at. Songwriters, keep this in mind.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This article is the first in a series about music and its effects in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other denominations. Next Friday: *

17 September, 2010

A Message on Race and Daniel

Imagine attending the Iowa State Fair on August 20th, 2010. Just as advertised, you had "Non-stop Fun"--until you left. Before your eyes, a group of thirty or so individuals with dark skin gather around a terrified man with lighter skin...and beat him senseless. This is not fiction. This actually happened. The thirty or forty individuals roamed around the Iowa State Fair and openly called it "Beat Whitey Night". If it had been a group of whites calling it "Beat Blackie Night", it would have been a national story, the offenders would have been hung in effigy by the ACLU and NAACP. But instead, we've heard almost nothing about it. And here's why.

It seems in today's world, only white people can be racist, only Christians can be bigoted against a particular religion, and only men can be sexist. Hate crimes, heinous as they are, are always committed by "majority" offenders. But the opposite is true: anybody can be racist, sexist, or bigoted against religion.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is heralded as a god of the Civil Rights movement. He was martyred for the cause, immortalizing him. And he's spinning in his grave so fast he's halfway to China. He envisioned a totally colorblind society, where race wouldn't matter. Organizations like the NAACP, by very nature, shred his dream. Affirmative Action struck it down by trying to elevate "minorities" to higher levels. I use quotes because calling whites the "majority" and everyone else "minorities" undercuts the Dr. King's life's work! Why is this? It's because we're still noticing race. We are not colorblind yet, and we as a society are perpetuating racism.

We call for diversity. We call for people to recognize our differences. What does that do? It separates people. Like iron and clay, our society is more separate now than it ever has been. The prophecy of Daniel is being fulfilled faster than we can see, in more ways than we can possibly know. Let me paint you a picture of the feet of iron and clay.

There exist no world empires. Yes, there are superpowers, but there is no world-spanning empire. The head of gold was Babylon, an empire which controlled just about the entire known world. The chest and arms of silver were Medo-Persia, who controlled the known world. The belly of bronze was Greece, who controlled the known world. The legs of iron was Rome, who controlled the known world. But today? Every nation has its ruler. Every country has its border. We as a race are not under one Earthly crown, but under many.

Now let's look at our own little "empire", the United States of America. Each State is like a nation, under the "emperor", the President. But each State is relatively independent, making their own laws, with their own court systems, and their own governments. We used to be completely united, but slowly we are separating; the States are red and blue now, iron and clay. No longer are they just States.

Within this nation exists yet another form of separation along the same lines: right now we are in the midst of a "cold civil war" between the political right and political left. Neither side wants the other side to succeed in any way, shape or form. Bipartisan anything is out the window because of inter-party tensions. Obama's blaming the Republicans for the economy, blaming Bush's tax rates. The GOP is blaming Obama for the crisis, citing the bloated spending bill he pushed through early on. Fingers are pointing at the other side, no matter what side you're on.

Still another separation exists: this thing called "race". I use quotes because I hate the term. We are all a race of beings. We bleed red, think freely, and are usually born with two arms and legs, ten fingers and toes, and a head. Why should skin color make somebody a different race, a different species? Why should we be separated? But we are. That's the clincher. We're separated like iron and clay; like black and white.

Religion is yet another way we find to distance ourselves from those different from us. Atheists shun all religions, though it seems like they attack only Christianity. Christians tend to shun Muslims, and Muslims tend to shun Christians. It's a vicious cycle of "My god is better than yours" that has been repeating itself since the beginning of sin, and will keep repeating itself until its end at the Trumpet's sounding.

We are living in the tips of the toes of the feet of iron and clay.We are a divided people, be it by race, creed or color. We are judged by the content of our character and the color of our skin. And we still have not been able to sing the words of that great American Negro-spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" And we won't until Jesus comes and ends all this.

Your Brother in Christ,

03 September, 2010

Depression in Retrospect

Depression is not cool. But neither is it the absence of God as so many try to tell me nowadays. You don't need meds to get through it, and you don't need a twelve-step program, but in hindsight, I probably should have acknowledged my problem and tried to get over it faster. This is my story and how I got through it.

It all started several years ago, in July of 2006. My family moved out to a twenty-acre piece of property, leaving behind a home we'd shared for the better part of twelve years. The day we finally moved out of that house was supposed to be a day when I had a bass lesson, but due to the fact that I was feeling sick, I cancelled. It would have been the last time I saw my teacher alive. Sunday morning, my parents broke the news to me that he had been killed in a head-on car accident. I started feeling guilt, feeling like I shouldn't have cancelled my lesson that week. But I wound up getting over it and moving on.

Later on, I wound up falling in love with a friend's sister. After a game of cat-and-mouse that I cleverly orchestrated, I revealed myself as her secret admirer. I asked her to ice cream and she said yes, but then after some thinking, decided that she wasn't ready for a relationship, and that it would be too awkward between us. I took it way too hard, throwing myself into a depressive identity crisis that lasted, for the most part, until March of 2010, totaling almost three years. During that entire time I didn't acknowledge that I had a problem because I didn't want to seem weak, I didn't want to go through treatment or see a shrink, and I didn't want to be preached at.

People would always ask me whether I was okay. I'd say yes, knowing full well that I was lying, both to my friends and myself. But I pretty much turned emo. No, I didn't do my hair backward (short in the front and long in the back) or wear skinny jeans. But I wrote poetry and lots of it. Most of it was very depressive, mourning about how I was wronged and had nowhere to go. I was able to write sonnets on a whim, something I wish I could do now. And my music tastes took a turn for the screamo. I never did listen to Underoath or stuff like that--more like Skillet, Red, know, hard rock and metal.

I finally managed to do some introspection and realized that my problem was that I had no sense of purpose, no sense of direction. I didn't know who I was. I was suffering through the fifth stage of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. The fifth stage is titled, "Identity vs. Role Confusion". I was thoroughly confused. And it didn't help that I was mature for my age and was also suffering through (and continue to suffer through) the sixth stage, "Intimacy vs. Isolation". My depression was rooted in the latter extremes of these two stages.

So let's talk symptoms really quickly. I was sleeping a lot. I was feeling down in the dumps constantly. And as a part of my identity crisis I kept finding myself wishing I could have a "George Bailey experience", to see how I had influenced people's lives. To see what it would be like if I'd never been born. This is a dangerous line of thinking, borderline suicidal, and I didn't even realize it! By the time I did, I told myself that I definitely should have gotten help. Even though I didn't think I was clinically depressed, I probably was.

I beat depression with a process that lasted from March of 2010 until probably mid-August. It started by facing my fears of inferiority and role confusion, deciding to switch my musical area of study from string bass to voice. I chose string bass because I thought that was what I wanted. But I was no good at it. I knew I was a better singer than I was a string bassist (though I'm probably a better bass guitarist than I am a vocalist). Then I decided to face my other fear, fear of isolation, by asking somebody out. I'd been through almost three years of seeing somebody I liked and saying, "I'd never have a chance with her." With an 0 for 2 record, I expected rejection and felt helpless to avoid it (a phenomenon I later discovered to be called "learned helplessness"). I decided to swallow the frog in my throat and ask somebody. Rejection or no, I was going to do it. I hesitated for a couple of days, and finally asked her to vespers after class. It was such a freeing feeling when she said yes, and that Friday night was the best Friday night I'd ever had. And even though it didn't work out, it was the kick in the butt that I needed to realize that what I was dealing with was beatable without meds, shrinks, or being beaten over the head with a Bible.

That brings me to something that I'm sick and tired of. The entire three years, I heard the same message: "If you're depressed, you need Jesus." Maybe at first I was searching for God, but once I found Him, my depression went away. It was still feeling that isolation, that confusion. And the same message also told me that if you don't feel love, all you need is Jesus, and you'll feel loved like never before. But the thing is that I already had Jesus. I knew He loved me, and I was reminded of that every time I thought of the miracles worked to get me up to Walla Walla, to get my family to the Ranch, and so on. There were songs and skits that painted such a stark picture of the love of Jesus that my emotions got the better of me every time I saw them, causing me to cry openly. No, it wasn't Jesus that I was missing. In fact, God was all I had, all I was hanging onto. I remember praying dozens of times that He'd come and take us all away from this world full of crap. I remember sitting silently in Heubach Chapel, to me the "Holy of Holies" at WWU, and feeling the Holy Spirit touch me, feeling an angel sitting next to me. That was the day that I'd walked out of church because I was hearing the same empty message and the same empty songs. It was like calling tech support and them telling me to do something that I knew wouldn't work.

The theological issues here lies with the fundamental inaccuracy in mainstream Chrisitanity that a relationship with God solves all your problems. The truth is that a relationship with God gives you something to hope for, gives you an attitude of compassion. It's not a quick-fix for your problems. And that's why when some Christians don't get an prayer answered in the way they want, they lose hope. They think God has wronged them in some way. I thought that often enough until I realized that when you don't get what you want, it means only one thing: God has something better planned for you than what you thought you wanted. Something that is beyond your wildest dreams. The road is narrow, not easy. And if you fall, it's like Peter walking on the water. Jesus will be right there to pick us up if we want Him to. And feeling down is not the absence of God, but merely a part of life. Remember that: depression doesn't necessarily mean you need Jesus. You just need to keep hanging on until He makes a way out. Or until you decide to pick yourself up and get over it like I did.

Your Brother in Christ,

02 September, 2010

Hiatus is over

Well, it's over. Camp is, not this blog. And that's why I'm going to start posting again. But remember, if I run out of thoughts, I'll run out of entries. So ask me a question if you have one! Are you wondering about something having to do with Christianity? Do you want to play Devil's Advocate? Go ahead! I'm wanting your questions!

Your Brother in Christ,