Tag Archives: music

Hymns are hip


Other people try to be hip. Minnesota singer-songwriter-musician and now Nashota House seminarian Tyler Blanski IS hip–in the most Godly, positive possible meaning of the word. And when he says hymns are hip too, you can take his word for it. Here’s a sample of his post on the topic:

It does something to you. To stand and sing hymns in a chapel packed with men and women, all wearing their cassocks and surplices, all kneeling and crossing themselves profusely, all lifting their prayers to God changes you. You might think singing hymns is painfully awkward, banal, or for grandparents. But let me tell you, when you hear a chorus of voices booming and thundering, O Worship the King, all gorious above! O gratefully sing his power and his love! Our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days, pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise!, and when you get to sing along with all your heart, you begin to see that our grandparents were actually badasses (in the “formidable, excellent” sense of the word). You can see the fear of God on your peer’s faces, or the joy of the Lord, or humility to the point of tears. Two days ago, while singing hymns, I could not maintain complete stoicism, and started crying before Christ.

I didn’t know it, but I love hymns. You think what you want is a U2 concert, but you don’t. Since I’m a folk-singer, guitar-hammering rocker, I cannot believe I’m saying this, but when sung by people who care, and when song boldly and with great joy, hymns make our contemporary lyrics and rock ballads sound like Junior High band practice (although, contemporary worship can sometimes also be amazingly beautiful and rich). Maybe it’s because “the lyrics” are so often genuine poetry. Or maybe it’s because the human voice remains the most beautiful instrument on earth. Because it is the only instrument made by God Himself, and not man, some medieval Christians forbade instruments of any kind in the sanctuary. Regardless of the reason, the singing of hymns here at Nashotah House has been for me a surprising form of spiritual formation.

Thy bountiful care what tongue can recite? It breathes in the air; it shines in the light; it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain, and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain!

Thanks, Tyler! Today you reminded me of one of the Good things in life.

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Theological reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of August Wilson‘s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. The play was intense, humorous, and profane. It surfaced the complex ways Christianity has become a part of the fabric of African-American culture–even for those who have found themselves responding to the church and its message with skepticism and rage, as “white man’s religion.” After the play, for the second time this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel of theologians after the performance (many thanks to United Theological Seminary president Mary McNamara’s hard work in arranging these panels).

Here are the reflections I shared on the play and the African American experience it portrayed:

First of all, I feel I’m standing on holy ground. Our playwright August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But it’s more than that. When, as a young man, he decided to become not a lawyer but a writer—a spiritual craft if there ever was one—he incurred the ire of his mother. As a church historian, I remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also decided to follow his own path and enter a spiritual profession—the monastic life—instead of becoming a lawyer. And he, too, provoked the wrath of his parent; his father. Continue reading

The Twin Cities: One of the world’s very coolest places to live


Some days I get up and I’m just glad I live in the Twin Cities. Check out this tiny sampling of the sorts of arts & culture stuff available to us Twin-City-ites!

For a cool experience shopping ingredients for Hmong cuisine, check out the Hmong farmer’s market! http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/0bd6455f7d7e66d9c688c895de37edfc&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

This “punk grass” music group has the world’s best band name: http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/f65e3d12e0fa64a2a17ab3f739c5a319&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

Did you know Neil Gaiman lives near here? http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/a5950f5f6dcd17dc4ffe4911f85a92dd&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

Weird Al at the fair this summer! http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/03f7c79ef615c544a6e775eac5736ccb&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

This guy made something cool every day of the year, and now there’s an art show that lets us see all of it: http://m.mprnewsq.org/14206/show/8a1e0e9a2c817b965abdfc990dd8e4ae&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

I really want to go to this street art show featuring miles of giant photos of people: http://m.mprnewsq.org/14206/show/18d79447fab21d3cf0bc3a1b872a5586&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

“Christian History Minutes”: Bach asks Jesus’ help and gives God glory


Back at Christian History, we were working for a while on getting a series of “Christian History Minutes” together for airing on a certain network of Christian radio stations. The deal never went down, but today I stumbled across the small series of “minutes” that I wrote at that point to demonstrate what we might do. Here’s one of those, on one of the greatest composers who ever lived:

God gives musical talent, not to bring fame to the musician, but to reflect glory on the Creator. Nobody knew that better than Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’m Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History magazine.

We know Bach as one of the most productive geniuses in the history of Western music. He was also a deeply spiritual Christian. Nearly three-fourths of his 1,000 compositions were written for use in worship.

When he started a new piece, he always wrote at the top of the blank page, Jesu Juva. “Jesus, help me.”  And when he finished, he wrote Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be the glory.”

2 Chronicles 5:13 speaks of temple musicians praising God. In his Bible, next to that verse, Bach wrote these words: “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

These are words worth remembering, as we enjoy the music God gives through his talented people.

For more stories from our spiritual heritage, visit www.christianhistory.net or read Christian History magazine.

Tavern tunes in church music and “Why should the devil have all the good music?”


After I posted the Gregory piece, a friend, Michelle Myer, chimed in with the following on my Facebook page:

“You missed the bit where the dove landed on his shoulder and taught him the basics of Gregorian chant. 😉

“I’ve also heard him credited (through his adoption of Roman forms of chant for worship) as being the very first to say ‘Why should the Devil have all the good music?’ Larry Norman said it best, but maybe Gregory said it first?”

As Michelle knows, the bit about Gregory inventing Gregorian chant–dove or no dove–doesn’t have an ounce of evidence to support it (and much evidence goes against it). But since she has brought up the topic, here’s a reflection I posted back in the Christian History online newsletter days (2003), related to the origin both of the use of tavern tunes in church music–usually Luther is credited with doing this, but did he?–and the phrase “Why should the devil have all the good music?” The facts may surprise you. And some of the links may not work–this was posted over 5 years ago:

From Oratorios to Elvis
Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years.

Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the (church) building.

Part II: Caveat Gyrator

Imagine a mutton-chop-whiskered, white-jump-suited Anglican priest, posed dramatically on one knee, arm raised skyward, belting out, before a cheering crowd of the pious and the curious, the Elvis hit “Where Could I Go But to the Lord.” (Yes, Elvis covered that song in 1968. His Majesty is not in the Gospel Hall of Fame for nothing—he garnered all three of his Grammies for gospel hits, not rock tunes.) Continue reading