It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God ON SALE: 10% OFF.
SQUARE HALO BOOKS
I think Ned knew all along that there would be a sequel, one specifically exploring the role of music in God’s world, IWG2, so to speak. Ned is a huge music fan with wide and passionate tastes — it may be that I first met him at a concert or festival. Years and years in the making (an artful story in itself) we could not be more proud to announce that we now have It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God compiled and created by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books; $24.99.) With nearly 30 stellar chapters and 336 pages, it is a beautiful, beautiful resource, a worthy book to add to your shelf. If you work in the field of music – music teacher, choir director, aspiring rock star, high school band director, worship leader, concert promoter, record producer – you should buy several; you just should. It is unquestionably now the best book in the field and you will want to share it with others, often. I predict there will be study groups and book clubs reading it together in rehearsal halls and choir lofts and recording studios and coffee shops and Christian education classrooms, wherever musicians gather to dream about their work.
EXPERIENCE AMPLIFIED (OR: WHY THIS BOOK IS SO IMPORTANT)
Allow me to begin my review with a rumination on one of the last chapters in the book, one on booking and promoting concerts called “Experience Amplified” by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma. Kirstin VG-R writes wonderfully – read her regularly by subscribing to catapult — and in this chapter she tells of the remarkable work of Calvin College’s Student Activities Office as it brings in thoughtful musicians, songwriters and bands to enhance the appreciation of (and discernment about) the popular arts among Calvin College students (and the wider Grand Rapids community who have enthusiastically affirmed their innovative work.) Like the other chapters in It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God, Ms VG-R was given a one-word title; in her case, “promotion”, and she walks us through the vision, theology, and storied details of booking acts, promoting shows, finding appropriate venues, the complexities of ticket sales and hospitality and education and live concert production. In her vividly portrayed piece she draws us in telling about all the concert posters on the cinder block walls of their grotto-like offices — I’ve seen those posters in that cluttered office noting advertisements for Dave Matthews, Andrew Bird, Lupe Fiasco, Emmylou Harris, Gungor, Iron and Wine, Mavis Staples, Sigur Ros, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Over the Rhine, Bruce Cockburn, fun., Jars of Clay, Aradhna, Kishi Bashi, Regina Spektor, and many, many more — country to rap to soul to indie pop and more. She notes that the decor is, actually, theological:
It’s a messy witness, tacked to the walls with duct tape and poster putty, on display for all to see and to discuss and to question. The motto of the Student Activities Office (SAO) is “changing the conversation about popular culture” and even the posters serve this purpose. But anyone can stick pieces of paper on the wall. Beyond physical space is where the conversation really heats up, as live concerts draw people into the circle with all five senses. Lights and speakers, instruments and microphones, musicians and fans converge in a big room for just a moment in time and each moment is precious enough to frame.
But it all begs bigger questions: Why should Christians spend time and money on such activities –and not just as observers, but as promoters? What, if anything, would make a concert venue run by Christians different from other venues? This chapter will use the Calvin College concert series as a case study for reflecting more deeply on the potential for concert venues informed and shaped by holistic Christian values.
Much of this amazing chapter is inspired by the leadership of SAO Director Ken Heffner, and Kirstin tells of his vision — inspired largely by the wide-as-creation redemptive theology of Dutch Reformed public intellectual Abraham Kuyper. I know a bit of how this has worked for Heffner and his staff and student team, and know that for them there have been huge struggles — not everyone in the religious community understands the risks and blessings of the best popular art or the theological insights of common grace, and not everyone in the artistic community trusts or appreciates the conversations going on in places like Calvin College; some mainstream artists and managers and journalists, in fact, are unsure about their efforts to nurture Christian discourse, confusing their views with the censors of the religious right, perhaps.
So, for instance, he ended up on the phone last year with one of the members of a world-famous band, literally while they were rehearsing at the famed NBC studios before their SNL gig talking through painful misunderstandings; his intentional and artist-savvy conversations about Calvin’s distinctive worldview with top-tier artists and their management have sometimes gone late, late into the night and continued long after the artists have left the campus.
They have worked hard to generate trust and wisdom about how to host artists, which to avoid and who to work with, who to nurture and what boundaries to be clear about. It has been difficult, yes — with very few models at any other colleges being so intentional and discerning in this way.
But there have also been great, great joys, some of them sowing seeds of gospel hope among musicians who are amazed that this small religious campus cares so very much about the arts, about popular culture, and about hosting and producing an excellent show in a quality venue.
World famous, Grammy Award winning indie band Death Cab for Cutie last year made it a point to note that they could have played at other more lucrative halls, but knew that Heffner’s team treats them well and — fascinatingly — their students pay attention, appreciating the artfulness of the show, engaging the music as if it is, well, a gift made possible by a good God; by some accounts, SAO audiences are the best of any crowds on a performer’s entire tour. A rare culture of engagement in popular music has developed over time there, and even secular artists are caught up in moments of grace as audiences participate appropriately.
I SAY ALL THIS BECAUSE…
It seems to me that there are hundreds of faith-based and church-related colleges and thousands of churches that host concerts, and yet very few have risen to this sort of conversation about the role of popular entertainment, seeking a coherent and faithful understanding of contemporary music, nor have many really been intentional about considering a set of uniquely Christian practices about appreciating music in all its many-splendored textures and tones and styles.
The singular witness of Calvin’s SAO series — told so helpfully in Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s chapter — is vivid indication of just why It Was Good Making Music to the Glory of God is so very important.
This book is a delight to read, a joy, thrilling even, if you are a music lover. But, also, it is important.
ONE MORE TIME: RESISTING SACRED/SECULAR DUALISMS TOWARDS A MORE FAITHFUL VIEW OF THE ARTS
And so, from this wonderfully-written chapter about this esteemed program near the end of the book we are reminded of a theme that most serious Christian artists intuit and need to learn to better articulate, a theme that arises quickly in both It Was Good books — there is no necessary division between the so-called sacred and secular; church music is not necessarily more “spiritual” than a love song or hoedown, God is honored and gladdened by faithful music of any sort, not just congregational or sacred music.
Good art, guided by the spirit and values and vision of the artist, pays homage, more or less allusively, to a way of seeing life, a way of believing about life and in that sense all art is fundamentally religious (of one religion or another.) Art or music that is intentionally Christian can nonetheless be bad art, and goodness and truth and wondrous artfulness can be found in the most profane of work. In God’s good grace, we live in a world of color, texture, sound and rhythm, and we can, indeed, make all manner of music to God’s greater glory.
Such humane and God-glorifying song, again, can be a child’s song about belly-buttons (as one of the great chapters here tells us) or a politically-charged bit of social criticism or it can be a liturgical chant or a passionate praise chorus. All such songs (the kid’s song or the liturgical piece) can be well-made, insightful, healthy and good, or can be poor, shallow, harmful, and bad.
That kind of extraordinary reminder of a glorious whole-life Kingdom vision which affirms the presence of God in common grace throughout all of life and culture is only one of the great reasons to enjoy this marvelous, and marvelously thought-through collection.
Reading It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God you will catch glimpses of that “every square inch” / all-of-life-being-redeemed vision lived out, explained and explored as many solid folks bear witness to the role of the good gift of music in their lives. You will enjoy hearing a bit about producing The Civil Wars and a lot about counterpoint in Bach; you get a grand workshop on the history of jazz, another on the spirituality of the blues; and you’ll learn about the hymn-writer who penned the beloved “In Christ Alone.”
You will enjoy hearing about music in the life of parents and children and you will consider the rigors of those who perform as a vocation. There are chapters about what the Bible says about song and there are chapters about how to be more artfully engaged in appreciating music — in church and in the rest of our lives, outside of the sanctuary doors. Square Halo Books has done us a great service in enriching our lives by offering us this vivid conversation into which we are invited. It is, in my humble view, one of the best books we’ve read in years — in part because it helps us think about faith in such a down-to-Earth, practical way.
As Bustard says in his excellent foreword,
We were made to sing to the glory of God. He deserves glory from us due to his majesty as well as his kindness to us. Some see an obligation to glorify God as a burden or limitation. But this is simply not the case. Living lives to the glory of God makes us more of who we are. It is the difference between merely existing in black and white and taking in all of life in full technicolor.
SO MANY STYLES
In It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God, thoughtful Christian singer/song-writers in the Americana/pop vein talk about learning their craft, about how to write, about collaboration and touring, even as classically-trained church leaders ruminate on their work (see the brilliant chapter on rehearsal by the Music Director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.)
Some chapters tend towards anecdotal entries that are interesting and entertaining such as Charlie Peacock’s reflection on his amazing career, a truly remarkable interview with hip hop artist and producer Shai Linne, Diana Bauer’s powerful telling of how music helped her in times of great sorrow — one of the best in the book! — and a wonderful interview with Keith Getty (composer of beloved contemporary hymns, most notably “In Christ Alone.”)
There are many more specialized chapters, focusing on Biblical study or a particular topic (collaboration, minor keys, participation, fame all of which are tremendous.) There are no tidy lines between genres, and there are pieces about music created for worship purposes — like a learned chapter on singing the Psalms — and many on the musical work done for popular entertainment and performance. Some seem to be written for musicians, although as a non-musician, some of these were among my very favorites.
For instance, I absolutely loved Vito Aiuto’s chapter on songwriting and Sandra McCracken’s splendid and homey piece on creativity and Drew Holcomb’s reflections on touring.
Actually, there is a whole lot for non-musicians, for those of us who listen to recordings, take in live shows, or just sing at church or in the shower. For instance, Katy Bowser’s piece on children’s music is absolutely excellent (the best I’ve even seen on this topic — I hope you know we stock her Coal Train Railroad CDs and the lovely Rain for Roots: Big Stories for Little Ones CD.) What a thoughtful, inspiring chapter, a so fun to read.
The brilliant, profound work on the aesthetics of delight written by Bethany Brooks is fantastic. She is an accomplished classical pianist (who plays all over the world) who also is active in the roots music scene in Philly. Oh yes, she also is a music director at City Church there. Anyway, it is a very, very impressive chapter and musicians and music lovers should reflect upon. It is one of the most important pieces centering the whole IWG project.
Stephen Nichols’ wonderful telling of the life of Johnny Cash becomes a bit of a morality tale about fame, and is a treat to read.
Jeremy Begbie is spot on when he says on the back-cover that “this book shows that it is still possible to write about music in a way that enriches our experience of it. Above all, it will renew your gratitude to God for making such art possible.”
It is interesting, isn’t it, that music is around us so very much, but we often fail to attend to it with much focus, and we rarely discuss it together, reflecting on faithful expressions and fruitful understandings. We get upset when pop stars do hare-brained stuff and we renounce this or that trend, or complain about music we didn’t like in church. We turn the car radio up or down as the case may be. But, too rarely do we pursue the kinds of good conversations as given to us in this book. Yes, this book is indeed a gift. The editor, the publisher, and the authors are to be commended for this labor of love.
It is notable when a book garners eloquent and passionate endorsements and this volume already is gathering just such glowing recommendations. Listen to rock and roller Dave Perkins, now Associate Director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt:
Is it possible to fully elucidate the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, even physical experience of music making? Perhaps the best way to go about it is to gather a choir of voices. It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God offers a rich resource of perspectives, each working to share some aspect or moment in the experience of that mercurial characteristic of human being we call music and its place in the life of faith.
The book covers so much good ground that it is hard to describe — I just want to offer this plea that you buy It Was Good: Making Music right away! (It will, of course, make a fabulous Christmas gift, as does the first IWG volume.) I hope that our readers will trust us on this one.
SEE MY LONGER REVIEW EXPLAINING EVERY CHAPTER
I don’t want to miss out on the joy of explaining some of what is to be found between these cool covers. There truly are some amazingly interesting topics and some pretty stellar authors.
So, please bear with me as I give the shout outs. I imagine them all lining up as after a show, hands clasped, bowing in unison before the encore. I wanna be the emcee and call out with gusto “Ladies and gentleman, give it up one more time for….”
I give a short paragraph about each and every chapter, by whom it is written, what it is about, and why I liked it so. There isn’t a bad one in the bunch, so we’re going to clap long and hard for these folks, and by the end you’ll be holding up little lighters shouting “Encore!”
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