As I was doing my top ten memoirs for the summer in my last post — a good list, I thought — there was one title I really wanted to mention, but didn’t. Besides it blowing my “top ten” limit, it isn’t exactly a memoir. And, anyway, it deserved its own very special review.
So, call this a happy ad-on to the top ten if you wish.
We are one of the very few bookstores in the country carrying CMYK, a very classy self-published book, and although we have previously given it a shout-out (in my 50 books for summer webinar), I wanted to tell you a bit more about it. It is a tiny bit complicated to explain, but just marvelous to read. it is even marvelous to behold. It is just mah-va-lus.
Justin McRoberts, sometimes known as McBob, is himself pretty mah-va-lus. He’s a co-pastor of an edgy, good church full of sinners and saints, outside of San Fran. He’s a road warrior who plays a great acoustic guitar, and has a belting voice that moves me deeply — and he performs all over the country. I have to admit that although I like his work a lot, love him as a brother, and appreciate his good support for all things bookish (not to mention his support for Hearts & Minds — he actually orders from us, rather than “liking” us on facebook, which, come to think of it, he never does — what’s with that?) I actually don’t know his backstory all that well. So I’ll wing it, here; the short version, which should make you want to read his book.
It seems that more than a decade or so ago Justin starting putting out a few really cool, very smart, singer-songwriter albums, with songs that, I think by design, were not what most might call contemporary Christian music. He has done some work with Young Life, has a heart for the unchurched and the hurting, and, well, he’s an artist. Seriously. So, his albums were deep with faith and rich with images and stories, and I think if you had the ears to hear, you’d get a bit of the grace that so shapes his life. But they weren’t preachy and they weren’t mostly worship and they were not formulaic.
And then CCM got a hold of him. He became a bit of a contemporary Christian music rock star, and he has confided that he doesn’t think those were good years for him. I surmise that he had other people at the helm of his work, producing the sorts of projects than perhaps were not really “him” and, well, you can imagine. As you might guess, Justin isn’t a slick and easily promoted gospel guy, and it didn’t quite work out.
Happily, he had the guts and grit and ingenuity to figure out how to reclaim his life. He continued to write music and play and sing and speak, did the church plant thing, and made more CDs, all independent of the industry. He became a spokesperson for Compassion International, and he continued to do his art. He actually did a bunch of indie albums, and they are really good. (He even did one of very cool acoustic covers of 80s songs, which was splendid.) I respect his song-writing (who else, I often say, writes a song inspired by urban education reformer Jonathan Kozol?) I respect his life. And I’m glad to report he’s a fun and funny guy. He is, as they say, the real deal.
And that is just the beginning, but it’s what I want you to know, that he is a man of character and integrity and joy, with a passion to do good work, creating indie pop type songs that tell stories that mean something. He is a very well-read Christian (see the picture of him posing by a whole spread of his books — not a few of which he bought from us, I might add) which already makes him a curiosity right? He is honest and real, and his music reveals his depth, and his passion for life lived authentically, messy as it often is.
A PROPHETIC IMAGINATION AS SONGWRITER
McRoberts’ songs are not at all religious propaganda, obviously, but they are not cryptic, either. That is, if I might be the music critic for a moment, he does not tend to write lyrics that are so minimalist or impressionistic or obscure — art for arts sake — that they hardly seem to mean anything. He may not want somebody to ask merely just what a song is about, but if you do, I suspect he wouldn’t just shrug and say “whatever.” He is a good poet, but he is a preacher, too, after all — he reads Walter Brueggemann. He nurtures his imagination, but he strives for it to be a bit prophetic. Which means it has to connect, to evoke, to allude to stuff that matters in the real world of ache and mystery.
To wit, we want to tell you about this crazy-good, truly lovely, rather recent book that he also self-produced. Yes, he’s a go-getter, and he not only self-produces music and social media stuff (see him on youtube, talking about his new project, here or here, playing one of his songs solo) but now he’s in the freakin’ book business.
And what tremendous books he has done. Yes, that is plural.
There are two editions of CMYK. (Did I mention something about him being an over-achiever?) There is one edition that is rather plain (and fails to include the stellar blurb that I gave him.) It sells normally for $9.99, although we have it here for BookNotes friends at 20% off of that, $7.99.
And there is another version that includes a remarkable, full-color, graphic design, art that works well to illuminate and enhance the stories and lessons, page by wonderful page. That expanded edition sells usually for $24.99, but we have it at the BookNotes 20% off, making it just $19.99.
So, yeah: one trim and plain and a bit cheaper, one full-color, with hyper-designed, spectacular artful illustration and a slightly larger shape and heft — and well worth a few extra bucks.
Here are three video pieces with each of the artists who did art inspired by the songs, art that ended up in the expanded version of the book. Click on the “watch” link, there under the yellow paint. Don’t miss them.
BOOKS & MUSIC
And — it gets better! — he did four CDs to go along with each of the portions of this book. Yes, it is a book (in two versions) and there is music to accompany it. Or, more precisely, the book, actually accompanies the songs; in most cases, the book’s chapters reveal something of the backstory of the songs. It really is a great idea, no? Who does this kind of stuff? Justin McRoberts, that’s who.
HERE is the CMYK site where you can sample some songs, etc. Come back here to buy the book, but do check how his really spiffy website.
CMYK: The Process of Life Together (in either edition, and with or without the music) is a great, great book. The art does enhance it, so I’m fond of the slightly larger, full-color edition. (The interviews with the artists in the expanded one are actually very interesting, as well, noting how hard they worked to find design styles that somehow connected with the printed prose.) But the plain one is a great read. And reading this stuff is going to bless you, I am sure.
Here’s the explanation. C-M-Y and K are the letters used in the color printing process (you knew that, right?) And we need all the colors, and they indeed overlap. And McBob has these four recordings, a series, called, respectively, C, M, Y, and K. So, presto, the book he wrote expanding on the songs is entitled CMYK. Colorful, eh?
And here is the fabulous book trailer, his overview of the book, in a really moving short clip. Wow; don’t miss this!
And the writing is colorful. McRoberts offers a full palette of human colors, the colors and tones and textures of grief and joy and lament and celebration and wonderment and struggle.
THE BOOK IS ABOUT PEOPLE, ABOUT REAL COMMUNITY
Like any pastor, and like most good traveling songsters, he cares about people, connects with them, reaches out and enters into relationships. These songs, and the essays in the book, are the poetically-rendered stories inspired by some of the people he has met. In this good but fallen world, full of what Bruce Cockburn famously called “rumours of glory”, there are colorful people. Mincing few words, sparing us not much, telling it like it is, McRoberts reports back from the front lines of his role as friend and listener, one who has pursued deep involvement in the human condition. He cares for folks, he gets to know people, and, often with their permission, artfully tells their stories. This book is that chronicle, the cataloging of the ups and downs, the fears and the foibles of folks far and wide. As such, it is illuminating and valuable. And really, really interesting.
Do you care about people? You will love this book. You will love listening in as Justin writes letters to people — chapters are entitled “Letters to a Young Pastor”, “Letters to a Young Brother” or “Letters to an Affected Sister.” You will get energy from his telling of their tales, and will appreciate the counsel and care he gives each. His letters are in some cases almost like very short stories, mini-biographies where a life is revealed.
Do you find yourself a bit apathetic, frustrated by those who interrupt you or who make emotional demands? Are you sometimes just not a people person? Well, you, too, should read this book. You will, I think, circuitously, learn how to care a bit more, learn to take up the calling of being present to others. In one, he offers a bit called “In Sickness and in Health” and in another he writes “It Must Be Hell on You” which is a letter to a lost friend, one who is uncertain about faith and their relationship is in jeopardy. Remember Me Jesus is “A Letter to a Queer Sister” and it is a good example of good care for another. He has a letter to an atheist, inspired by a person about whom he wrote the song The Fear of God. His reflection, then, following that letter, is “Some People Just Want To Watch the World Burn” which, as you may know, is that line from the brilliant Batman movie, The Dark Knight. I do think that we can learn much from somebody who has these pastoral gifts, who has learned somehow how to put his heart into words, and taken the risk of trying to forge community with others.
The Batman bit? By the way, that isn’t uncommon in this book. A line from another musician’s work (Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, David Bazan) or good citations from premier writers (an epigram from The Abolition of Man or a quote from James K.A. Smith or a line from Flannery O’Connor) mashes up next to his own lyrics and reflections, with stories about everything from playing Nintendo to climbing Mt. Diablo, from the “doing life together” dreams of his Oikos faith community to the short solid letter he wrote to his own infant son. It makes for an engaging, provocative read, with lots and lots of dots to connect. You will get your money’s worth, I assure you.
I don’t think I should reveal too much about any of the chapters, though, as part of the experience of this book is learning to care for these people, taking in their stories, pondering the insight Justin shares in his letters to and reflections about them. I will say that the song 33 is about Justin’s deceased father, Justin himself turning 33, and is a powerful, powerful center of the book. I will also say, just for the fun of it, that one of our most regular customers, Dave Bekowies — who is known to sign off his emails with lyrics from Jethro Tull or U2 — is the subject of one of the very good chapters here. And the epigram before that chapter comes from For the Life of the World by the late Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann. I think sold him that book, by the way. So it’s a cool little couple of degrees of separation thing going on right there, with Dave and Schmemann and Justin’s song “Courage to Believe” which was a personal favorite, and is more so, now, realizing it is about something Dave taught him, that God is already involved in our lives, right where we are.
For all of us, it will — as good art can — whisper and hint, alluding to matters of the heart, helping us hear the rumors, to affirm that, indeed, there is glory. People are strange, The Doors used to sing, and, yes, these are Strange Days. But Justin reminds us through these songs, and the revealing stories about the people in the songs, and then the letters he writes to them, how to discern the hand of God amidst the strangeness. These are real lives, with real pains, struggling with real stuff. It seems to me that in this embrace of the very human condition, every chapter becomes a beautiful reminder of the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation. He’s not that heavy-handed about it all, but there it is: this is an allusive, story-telling, beautiful example of incarnational spirituality. In fact, the last page remarks that although he travels, he is committed to a particular place, with particular people. The last words are “the soil beneath my feet.” It doesn’t get much more incarnational than that.
MARK LABBERTON ON CMYK
CMYK: The Process of Life Together comes with a great forward by author, preacher, and now President of Fuller Theological Seminary, McBob’s friend, Rev. Mark Labberton. He gives an extended meditation on how the church too often separates faith and life, especially “raw life.” We in the churches are a bit sanitized, I guess he means to say, and we sometimes don’t affirm the messy rawness of real life in this broken world. We like to keep it clean, keep it safe. “When Christian people,” he writes, “choose the cleaner option of keeping God and raw life apart, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes a religious cartoon.”
And then, of Justin and his book, he writes,
The gift of this CMYK Project is that it brings this rare combination together. Any who have known Justin McRoberts would be surprised if it did not do so, of course. The blend is Justin’s life and vocation. It has been evident in his music and leadership for years. But here it is exposed vividly.
And then, this wonderful line, a line any author would be proud to have written about his or her book:
“What we are given is an invitation to join Justin in an unfinished, honest, empathic, hurting story of hope.”
I think Labberton is on to something here, saying the book is an invitation to hope. It is why (Labberton also says) the story must be told in many dimensions: the letters, the lyrics, and music, the visual art, the interviews. “This is not an invitation into a cartoon encounter with God, nor with each other. It is a multi-dimensional, littered, vivid, living story of being human, seeking God and neighbor.”
And that is why I had to do a review of this, just this one — it is fairly rare, remarkably interesting, and, finally, about being human, in community.
So, get the CDs if you’d like, or download them at Justin’s site.
BUY THE BOOK
But surely buy the book, either the plain one, or the enhanced, full-color one, from us here. Maybe you could read it together with others — after all, CMYK is, as the subtitle says “the process of life together.” It would be a great book to foster community. Either way, be prepared for a joyful learning experience, an interesting set of stories, letters, and lyrics — littered and vivid — and join Justin and his friends in this lovely invitation to hope. Incarnational hope.
CMYK (plain edition) regularly $9.99 now $7.99
CMYK (full-color edition) regularly $24.95 now $19.99
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know
Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street Dallastown, PA 17313 717-246-3333