Those that know us, know that we have been involved for much of our adult lives in social justice activism. I’ve been feeble in this, perhaps, more talk than walk, way too often, taking steps in spurts and with grave failures. My conservative, small-town mother made me pick up littler on the first Earth Day in 1970 — how our small United Methodist youth group got that pick-up and big green Earth Day flag I don’t recall — and she and my Republican dad taught me about befriending Vietnamese refugees (“Boat People” they were referred to in those early post-Viet Nam years) which served me well when I had to get deeply involved in working for reform of political asylum laws under the awful Clinton administration as we struggled to keep them from deporting Chinese immigrants, imprisoned in York, PA. From serving in soup kitchens to doing peace demonstrations to working in pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, from being arrested in nonviolent protest against nukes to lobbying in DC with organizations like Bread for the World and Amnesty International, these shoes, as singer Bruce Cockburn puts it, “have seen some strange streets.”
Which is why Cockburn has so appealed to me as a rock star over the years. Along with the Indigo Girls, Bill Mallonee, Mark Heard, Holly Near, Bono, Larry Norman, Jackson Browne, and lots of soul singers and and a tons of hip-hop artists, rockers of good faith (often evangelical faith) and strong musical chops used their artful talents to help us see and feel things, including hearing the cries of the oppressed and even about the structures that too often keep people down.(Ahhh, I once had a long conversation with CCM star Randy Stonehill, a wonderful lyricist and guitar player, about why he only rarely did songs about poverty and compassion and never any denouncing injustice, like the Bible itself does. On his next album he recorded the blistering “Can Hell Burn Hot Enough” that was like Ron Sider or Jim Wallis or maybe Amos put to rock.) That the Bible itself is laden with protest music, social lament, and the prophetic denunciation of economic injustice and political abuse should go without saying. although some people need scholars like Walter Brueggemann to see it. Increasingly, even those who before thought of the Bible as mostly about spiritual things and proper theology realize that so much of the Bible is about land and politics and economics and cultural idolatries and social renewal. (Jerry Falwell Jr., by the way, supports the policies and values of the current President because he says “I don’t look to the Bible for my politics.” Allrightee, then; at least he’s honest about that.)
We may interpret some of this social theology in the Bible in ways that seem rather liberal and revolutionary (liberation theology, for instance, or the good social gospel of Martin King and the like) or in more conservative, traditionalist ways (some of the best thinking of Popes Benedict and John Paul II and their social proclamations that sounded more like Alexis De Tocqueville or Lord Acton than Karl Marx) or ways that go beyond the conventional left/right spectrum altogether; I’d love to put the Dutch neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper and his modern followers such as the Center for Public Justice in that camp. Friends such as Vincent Bacote and Richard Mouw and James K.A. Smith have helped me immensely in this and I hope you know their work.
In any case, the Bible and our faith must be seen in ways that are, as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis has put it, “always personal but never private” and in what that are, in the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, in Until Justice and Peace Embrace, “world transformative” rather than “world flight.” You know we love the book The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper. She shows that Biblical hope is for “everything wrong to be made right.”
Happily, lots of recent books these days shout this out clearly. Just for instance, Whitaker House is a revivalist/charismatic publisher and they just released a book called Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, The Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change by John Barry, an pastor and editor of the FaithLife Study Bible. Earlier this year, Grace Ji-Sun Kim co-wrote Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World. (A month ago I even wrote a review essay in CPJ’s Public Justice Review about of some of these recent books.) These evangelical books are delightfully and importantly clear about the full implications of the gospel.
A recent collection of essays by N.T. Wright about “speaking truth to power” is simply called God in Public. A nice paperback by Miroslav Volf (on which I happen to have an endorsing blurb) is called A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good and, as you will hear about in our next BookNotes, he has a brand new one coming soon called For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Yes! That’s it!
Music has been my other great love through this journey of trying to do “theology that makes a difference” and to live some sort of life that speaks out about public issues. Much of my life, I’ll admit, I’ve been discouraged about all this, and music has kept me going. I’ve mentioned Bruce Cockburn. My pal Brian Walsh has written the very best book about how an artfully Christian imagination can address so very much about the world we live in, in his careful study of Cockburn’s lyrics and social vision called Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press; $19.00.) Even if you haven’t read this book (and you should, even if you don’t know about his many albums!) you might have heard of Cockburn. Even U2 cited him in their song “God Part 2” making famous his line about “kicking at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.” And I’ve sometimes quoted his blazing powerhouse rocker “Call It Democracy” which I’ve quipped is the only rock song about the International Monetary Fund.
Which is all a very long way of introducing the fabulous new book by a British musician named Garth Hewitt called Against the Grain: Choices on a Journey with Justice (published by the Garth Hewitt Foundation) $20.00; our sale price = $16.00.
It is a long way of saying that Anglican Garth Hewitt is a singer-songwriter that early on we realized had an artistic vision that was bigger and broader than the sometimes sappy Jesusy songs from CCM, a 70s folkster with a truly Christian worldview, maybe akin to Mark Heard, who increasingly was singing not only about God’s sly presence in all of life, but, in fact, particularly about social justice. Garth Hewitt, in this regard, is maybe the example par excellance of a socially-engaged, activist, pop star doing music with a message. He was a bigger deal in the UK than he was here (in part because British evangelicals have long been more socially engaged than American evangelicals, what with leaders like John Stott, so they had their political and artistically vivid Greenbelt Festival and we had our safe and inspirational Creation Festival. Greenbelt features Cockburn and Billy Bragg and Calvin Seerveld and Over the Rhine and Nicaraguan Catholic poet, Ernesto Cardenal, for instance. Creation dis-invited Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo because he didn’t toe the Christian right-wing line enough.) So it’s no wonder most of us never heard much of Garth Hewitt.
There are reasons Garth’s many good albums weren’t terribly well known here (besides the practical matter of distribution — how does a very indie artist from England get albums in US record stores, especially if he is too religious for the mainstream record shops and too politically outspoken and intelligent for the Christian bookstore scene?) I think a reason is this: he spent a lot of his time traveling all over the world, not being a pop star.
As a spokesperson for many wholistic ministry organizations such as TearFund, Mr. Hewitt went places. He listened and learned. He got involved. If Bruce Cockburn travelled a lot and wrote some truly great songs about his travels from war zones and refugee camps and such, and did properly allusive/aesthetic musical reporting, Hewitt actually worked in those places. He spent less time making records (although he made a lot) and more times making change. He did what he felt called to, and lived and learned as a faith-based social activist. His work among the suffering informed his take on the world and the sorts of music he did. He’s an artist and a minister; he’s a songwriter for justice and also a spokesperson, scholar, leader, organizer of a nonprofit organization.
He recounts in the book how a music publisher trying to be helpful said his songs were “too intelligent.” The professionals advice? He should write songs that were “less intelligent.” So you can see why we want to support this book here in the States.
So, Against the Grain is Hewitt’s new book published in the UK and we here at Hearts & Minds are delighted to stock it. As noted above, it is published by the Garth Hewitt Foundation (and Amos Trust) and they have allowed us to sell it for a fabulous price of $20.00. We are offering our BookNotes 20% off, making it just $16.00. We are honored to be able to offer this oversized paperback to you. It is a book of one gent’s pilgrimage, his life-long, world-wide, joyful (if often hard) exploration of what it means that “the personal is political.”
Hewitt has a Palm Sunday song called “Against the Grain” which reminds us bluntly of the nature of Jesus’s community, inspired by the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, even though perhaps other kings were entering the city that day with their war horses and violent view of power. Which will we embrace, the nonviolent one standing against the grain or the powerful of the Empire?
Against the Grain is in many ways an auto-biography but it is written more like a fan-bio than a literary memoir. You learn about his many albums, his ordination, his mission trips. He’s in the studio bumping into Paul McCartney, he’s protesting abuse of Palestinians during a concert in Bethlehem. He’s working hard to get the sound right with Mark Heard doing production, he’s heading to perform here or there. But it is artful, laden with poems and song lyrics and the stories behind the songs which makes it interesting even if you’ve never heard any of his music.There’s lots of episodes from his struggles to make a difference and great stories of his life on the road as a peacemaking, justice-seeking Christian troubadour. The declaration on the cover, in fact, tells us much: it’s a “mixture of stories, theology, wisdom, music, humour — all building together to say something really important… but gently.” This truly is “the story of singer-songwriter, priest, author and activist Garth Hewitt, in his own words.”
Did I mention the pictures? Yes, there’s a lot of cool, full-color shots with him playing his banged up guitar. He’s toting that thing everywhere like a post-modern Woody Guthrie, whose anti-Hitler guitar had emblazoned on it “This Machine Kills Fascists.” But, again, Hewitt is a follower of Jesus, and isn’t interested in killing anyone. His guitar should say something like “This instrument help us love.”
But the pictures even more clarify his work with others of note. There he is with Bono; there’s pictures of him with Bruce Cockburn, several with Mark Heard. He has met with Yasser Arafat and there’s a shot of him with Desmond Tutu. Who gets around like this? Hewitt has had a remarkable life (he heard Martin Luther King live; he has met Mother Theresa!) Those who have sung with him and on his recordings range from straight man Cliff Richards to black gospel groups like Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Jessy Dixon Singers. Reading Against the Grain is a blast for anyone who follows music as the names just keep coming, naturally (not bragging) as his lifetime in the music industry has afforded him lots of cool collaborations. One minute he’s writing about Oscar Romero or Elias Chacour, the next there’s a picture of him with Pat Boone. One page he’s talking about Larry Norman and the next one has a sidebar about Mavis Staple. Often, he is with his wife, Gill, a true companion. And he’s always citing books and writing poems and prayers.
Hewitt, it is said, writes “redemption songs and then sings them without fear.” From working with the Dalits in India and the abused Palestinians in Gaza and peasants in Africa longing for faith and justice, he and Gil have been there. This is the story of a thoughtful Christian, a global activist, and a dynamic performing artist. It isn’t every overtly Christian book that carries endorsements from Muslim leaders and serious singer-songwriters like Martyn Jospeh, himself quite an artful singer/activist.
Mr. Jospeh says
I deeply respect Garth’s integrity and his commitment to social justice worldwide. The full extent of his humble hand in these matters may never be known, but this book will spread the word of a life that has affects thousands of people globally for the betterment of their lives, and the pursuit of a peace that finds justice.
This book offers si much fun stuff to hear about, even if often only in passing — he’s a godparent to a child (now grown) whose other godparent is Eric Clapton. Early on Hewitt did some gigging with Bonnie Bramlet; he describes talking to one of the Rolling Stones about Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; in those years he was listening to early Gram Parsons, who truly helped pave the way for a new thing called folk-rock. His serious theological reading is evident, too, and you’ll be excited to see who he reads and who he gets to know. Anyone reading about wholistic mission will be eager to learn from him. He takes the reader along on his journey and it is one that is exciting and sober and good. We are so happy to be able to offer this book at our Booknotes discount. Thanks to the GHF and Amos Trust for inviting us to be their US contact. What an honor!
In passing allow me to also note that we have stocked some of his classy photo/prayer books such as Making Holy Dreams Come True: A Book of Prayers and Meditations and we have reviewed and continue to recommend his splendid book from 2014, Occupied Territories: The Revolution of Love from Bethlehem to the Ends of the Earth (IVP; $16.00.) It is very highly recommended, so we’d love to send one of those out for you, too. You will learn a lot and be inspired by his very interesting life and teaching. Thanks for caring.
Against the Grain: Choices on a Journey with Justice
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