An old review of the same old album

A couple of days ago, I shared current thoughts on the 1998 album Exodus.  Below is the review I wrote for Worship Leader Magazine in 1998.  I’m pleased to discover that I had at least positively noticed the concluding “I See You” then, although I haven’t paid it as much attention in the intervening years.


Various Artists

 The radical worshipper possesses a heart discontent in stagnation, and vision-setter Michael W. Smith is profoundly impacted by this truth.  “Moving the masses” is not unfamiliar to Smitty; through this diverse collection of new worship material he urges on a sadly captive New Israel.

Smith’s mostly instrumental title track is a dramatic introduction evocative of an awakening, traveling human spirit.  Jars of Clay, dc Talk, Sixpence, Cindy Morgan, Chris Rice, The Katinas, Third Day, and Crystal Lewis have all offered creations especially for this recording, which aims to “stretch traditional perceptions of worship.”

In dc Talk’s “My Will” we are reminded of a core worship concept:  aligning my will with God’s supreme will.  The humble “Needful Hands” from Jars of Clay then takes the baton, carrying the theme of yielding in order to find potency completely in God.

Third Day’s brawny rendering of Smith’s “Agnus Dei,” not necessarily an improvement on the original, does incorporate a couple of sparkling surprises.  The simple, repetitive “Nothin’” by Rocketown artist Chris Rice will be a favorite.

Though the musical makeup of The Katinas’ “Draw Me Close” isn’t extraordinary, these pure, adoring prayer words are destined to be sung nationwide.  Crystal Lewis’s anthem, a towering trumpet-call, is an outstanding marriage of music to the text from Revelation!

Smith salutes Rich Mullins in “I See You” — reminding us that God is visible even though bondage is still there in the rear-view mirror.  The Israelites came to see more clearly a cloud-and-fire God whose interest in loving relationship was spectacularly displayed.  Michael W. Smith, please keep soaring ahead, impelling us — believers also in transitto new views of the same amazing God.

– Brian Casey, July 1998



MWM: a new review of an old album

I am no “Christian music” junkie, and I was repelled by K-Love’s recent challenge to listen to nothing but “Christian music” for a month.  Au contraire:  I think a diet that includes a variety of musics is beneficial.  Cook me up a platter with all of these, please:

  • Some Barrueco and Beethoven and Bolling and even a bit of Boston
  • Healthy doses of Kansas, with some Khachaturian & Stan Kenton (but no musical theater kitsch, thank you very much)
  • Grieg & Glad & Grechaninov
  • Sibelius & Scandinavian wind quintets and Simon & Garfunkel
  • A pinch of ELO and selected Eagles . . . and gotta have Elgar
  • Fernando Ortega & First Call (you can keep Franck and 4Him) and some folk tunes


Basically, I resist the notion that our input ought to be confined to “Christian” lyrics.

First, a good deal of what’s out there in “Christian” music simply isn’t of very good quality.  I can’t stomach the tripe.  (Can you really imagine Jesus getting up at sunrise in Galilee and singing, “This feeling can’t be wrong; I’m about to get my worship on”?¹)  A couple times a week, I find myself trying to listen to something from Christian radio, thinking I need some such message, then wincing at the stylistic stupidity and turning to something else instead.

Second, Christian lyrics’ attention to scripture (or even to what makes sense) is uneven at best.  The biblical truthfulness is, I suppose, no worse than with most sermons and Bible classes, but still….

Third, a diet of only “Christian” music would appear to negate the place of purely instrumental music (sans words) beauty, which I take as an equal creation of our God.  (He could have left us with no sound, you know.  We could have existed with rice and beans and water and a mouth of some type, but no eyes or ears.)

exodusHowever (and this is a big however, because this is what I started out to write about!), the Exodus album, produced by Michael W. Smith’s Rocketown enterprise, continues to be influential for me.  Upon its release, I wrote a review for Worship Leader Magazine, and I’ll share that in a few days, for sake of comparison and interest, but I wanted to write a new quasi-review first, without looking at the old one.

Exodus is one of a handful of go-to albums whenever I want to hear a variety of meaningful, soulful Christian music.  Several of the songs have some staying power, and I find myself impacted positively by most of them.

The Exodus album featured some then-up-and-coming singers and groups, such as DC Talk, the Katinas, Sixpence None the Richer, Third Day, Jars of Clay, and Chris Rice.  Not all of the Exodus songs ended up as the biggest hits for of those recording artists, but most of the songs were well chosen.

Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics:

For those under the clouds,
Staring up in awesome wonder,
As tears come slowly down,
I’m reaching up a needful hand.
(Jars of Clay)

Draw me close to You.
Never let me go. . . .
You’re all I want.
You’re all I’ve ever needed.
(The Katinas)

Holy, holy are You, Lord God Almighty
Worthy is the Lamb.
You are holy.
(Third Day)

During my most recent get-reacquainted time with this album, I re-noticed one of Michael W. Smith’s two contributions—the song “I See You.”  On the surface, this is a simple song.  I vaguely recall not being attracted to the song back in 1998, and I have rarely paid it much mind since.  This time, though, I thought more structurally of the whole.  Notice the album’s bookends:

FIRST:  Smitty’s mostly-instrumental title track “Exodus” sets up the concepts of the album dramatico-musically, yet soberly.

MIDDLE:  Lots of worship and devotion expressed in other songs

LAST:  Smitty’s “I See You” reminds the listener, by way of images from the 2nd book of the Torah (cloud, flame, “promised land”), that God is everywhere.  ||:  “Everywhere I go, I see You.”  :||

For me, “I See You” has become part of this album’s thrust.  It speaks persuasively and simply of the impelling, persistent experience of the Lord God during the journey out from Egypt.  I’d be embarrassed to tell Smitty face to face that I didn’t “get this” for the first 15 years, but he would probably smile at me.  Like this Exodus album, Michael W. Smith himself has some staying power.   Smith also seems to have had vision and discernment with regard to Christian music and artist selection.

I appreciate so much of what MWS has contributed through the last few decades.  Isn’t it curious that he was first an unknown pianist on Amy Grant’s stage.  🙂

Listen to Exodus  YouTube recordings here

[ Next:  my 1998 review of this same album.  Who knows what the shadows know?  I might have said something that proves to be really embarrassing. ]

¹ The song to which I refer, “A Beautiful Day,” sung by Jamie Grace Harper and written by Harper, Christopher Stevens, Toby McKeehan, and Morgan Harper Nichols, strikes me as a next-gen “Cartoons” by Chris Rice, some of whose better material was featured on the Exodus album.  “Cartoons” was more clever, but as for me and my house, we refuse to mock the word “Hallelujah” and the idea of worshipping Jah by suggesting Scooby-Doo and Fred Flintstone would do it.

MWM: tentacle music (pt 3)

This is the third installment of a mini-series in which I comment on a few songs and hymns that continue to lure me.   Some songs seem to have these friendly-octopus “tentacles”—pulling us toward them, time after time, without letting up over the years.  I’m commenting on these categories:

  1. contemporary (congregational) worship songs
  2. songs from hymnals
  3. other contemporary spiritual songs
  4. secular compositions

“In Christ Alone” and probably “How Deep the Father’s Love” deserve places in the first category – contemporary worship songs.  “Jesus Is Lord,” more of a category-2 song that started in category 1, is also time-tested, with broad appeal — at least until it fell out of use in the last ten years or so.  Here, now, is some commentary on some songs from category # 3.  Since most of these were conceived more as solo songs than as congregational ones, I’ll opt for the societal convention of speaking of them in terms of the solo singer.

Twila Paris sang “I Will Listen to His Voice” . . . and I listened to hers.  It’s not that I didn’t listen to His; the point, of course, was to listen to God more attentively and obediently.  It was Twila’s heart, coming through her voice, that caused me to hear the utterly trusting, creaturely, worshipful thoughts of this song.  Along with expressions of trusting dependence, Twila sings,

I don’t know the way to go from here,
But I know that have made my choice.
And this is where I stand
Until He moves me on,
And I will listen to His voice.

“I Will Listen to His Voice.”  © Ariose Music.
Words and Music by Twila Paris.

And then there was Rich Mullins, the benevolent ghost of Christian music past.  (Rich was tragically killed several years ago in an auto accident, and his memory has appropriately lived on.)  There’s the “submarine song” called “Screen Door,” and “Step by Step,” composed by Mullins’s friend and band member David “Beaker” Strasser.  Or what about “Awesome God”?  For me, though, “If I Stand” is the tentacle song:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that You will pull me through.
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You.
If I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs,
But if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.

Words and Music by Rich Mullins and Steven Cudworth.
© Universal Music Publishing Group.

Fernando Ortega’s music often rises to the level of “heart music”; as with these other singer/songwriters whose material I’ve highlighted here, there is much to choose from.  I like many of Ortega’s folkish arrangements of gospel songs and hymns, but not many of those keep grabbing me through the years.  I love his original “Jesus, King of Angels”; it probably draws me as much as the song I’ll name here as the best Ortega tentacle song:  “I Will Praise Him, Still,” which touches many sensitive hearts for good reason.

Michael Card has inspired me — so many times, in so many ways — that it’s difficult to know which of his creations to highlight.  I only know he deserves a place here.  Is it the well-remembered “El Shaddai” or the also-early “I Have Decided”?  What about the beautiful blessing “Barocha” or the heart-rending “Maranatha”?  Any number of the songs based on biblical texts/books are as artistically memorable as they are compelling:  “Jubilee” and “In the Beginning” and the Job trilogy and the prophetic voice of “I Will Bring You Home”?  Or “Joy in the Journey” or “Could It Be” (that has the line about questions telling us more than answers ever do)?  When it comes down to it, I can’t choose a Michael Card song.  There are too many that draw me over the years.

I was naturally disappointed when Jennifer Knapp departed from biblical morality, but one or two of her songs are in this “tentacle” category for me, as are some of Rebecca St. James’s and Michael W. Smith’s.  Smith, at least, is a songwriter with the creative talents of a Billy Joel or Paul Simon or Jimmy Webb, but Smith’s voice quality keeps me from dwelling in his music all that much.

I suppose I’m a “groupie” for some of the above musicians, virtually following them around through the years.  I haven’t named Glad, yet this group was perhaps the first “contemporary Christian” one that seemed to tap my shoulder, inviting, “Listen to this.  Share this music with us.”  So many of the songs from the original A Cappella Project album are worthy, and the Romans album is meaty, as well.  The Symphony Project was my favorite album for a while, and then there was Floodgates; “Mary, Mary” and “Hallelujah” and “When He Comes Again” are songs I return to at least once a year.  But if there is one Glad song I might choose to possess while marooned on a desert island, I think it’d be “Gloria” from the A Cappella Worship I album.  This song not only energizes me musically, but it spurs my heart to worship the great and mighty God.  It must be said here that worship, even more than music, reaches its arms out and holds me, too.

The above are “tentacle” songs that keep reaching out from the annals of “CCM” to grab me.  There will be one more list—presumably, in a week or two.

[This is an installment in the Monday Worship Music series.  Find other, related posts through this link.]

Style vs. content

I caught a sexagenarian (+!) Paul Simon on PBS the other evening.  He still had style, although his voice is “slip-slidin’ away.”  In the contemporary Christian/so-called “crossover” realm, Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant have always been long on style, and MWS, at least, often has content to match.  Billy Joel, another long-termer, has in my perception had as much content (albeit undesirable content at times) as style, but it’s a complete package.  Style is one thing, and content is another, and it’s excellent when they’re found together.

Contemporary styles are almost assumed to be normative in a great number of churches these days.  Lots of congregations exhibit contemporaneity, to some extent.

On the other hand, traditional styles can seem to garner almost as much support, even among contemporary advocates, albeit without the same depth of loyalty.  Stained glass and vestments, “baptismal fonts” and narthexes (nartheces?), blaring organs and staring icons are all hallmarks of traditional churches, and while some of these items things spook me a little, and most of them bother me at some level, a lot of younger folks find beauty (and meaning?) in them.

Whether we prefer old or new, and whether that preference is based on fact or fiction, I hope we can keep perspective.  Style sometimes takes too much of our attention; content is so much more important.

What’s represented by the “baptismal font” in, for instance, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches is contra-scripture; therefore, what many perceive as “beauty” in the style of the furniture is vacuumed out by a lack of bona fide content.  In other words, what is done substantively with the “font” is not of biblical substance; therefore, it is vacuous, if not devoid of meaning.  Such fonts should be seen as the ultimately meaningless pieces of furniture they are.

Next on the chopping block:  organs, which are of course very much in the traditional-style category.  Organs may distract and blare and lead poorly, but they may be seen as a necessity where there is no other musical leader.  Organs may tie up thousands or even millions of dollars.  (I know of one example of a 2-million-dollar organ restoration.)  When an organ’s style–its ornate cabinetry or its booming tones or the artifices of its timbres–become the centerpiece, the people in those pews are probably not being served with substantive content, nor are God’s purposes.  I acknowledge that an organ may seem to be a servant for some, when employed with perspective, and it may be an aid to worthy content.  These things should be brought into Kingdom perspective so that no organ (or any physical thing, for that matter) rules.

How about stained glass?  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it fourscore times:  “Oh, I just love the beautiful stained glass!”  “The stained glass in that church is so beautiful!”  Yeah, yeah.  There is a beauty when light streams through color, and I can appreciate that.  But for me, stained glass connotes the darkness of the Middle Ages (and earlier, and later), and since it does, it’s hard for me to separate it from false doctrine, popery, and oppressive, false religion.  This dislike of stained glass probably represents a failing of mine, but I confess it freely.

As long as styles are recognized as superficial, I might be able to acknowledge some value in them, even if they contradict my preferences.  But I feel a rising tension when mere styles are presumed to carry spiritual weight, and when fabricated words like “narthex” and “sacristy” are thrown around as though they mean something to everyone, and as though they have anything to do with the true faith of Jude 3 or, yea, with anything of well-founded, lasting meaning whatsoever.

Style sometimes takes too much of our attention; content is so much more important.  Whether it’s Paul Simon, Michael W. Smith, or stained glass, we should make the content the center of our thinking and experience.

MM: Agnus Dei

The days of my highest activity level with high school students were also the days of my greatest musical output in terms of Christian songs and hymns.  One of the earliest arrangements I made for the Cedars youth group was of Michael W. Smith’s song “Agnus Dei.”  (For the uninitiated, the translation of the Latin is “Lamb of God.”)

Agnus Dei struck several of us at the time as a unique offering from a pop Christian “artist.”  Not only did it hark back to Latin, but it used a boy-soprano in the original recording.  Very strange for a pop song.  But it worked!  None of this has as much to do, though, with the worth of this song.  Hear the words:

Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!
For the Lord God Almighty reigns.
Alleluia!  Holy!  Holy are You, Lord God Almighty!
Worthy is the Lamb!  Worthy is the Lamb!
You are holy, holy.

The youth group sang this song with soul.  I wish it were sung in groups I’m a part of now.

There was a lot of repetition.  Worship-filled repetition.  Dear siblings, this kind of repetition is NOT of the “vain repetition” variety.

Consistent voices

Christendom has its share of struggles and scourges. There’s truly a lot to criticize (although not as much as the news media appears to believe).

But I find in contemporary Christian culture that there have been some consistent voices … voices that have spoken for more than a decade and have not succumbed to scandal. Voices whose messages have been sound and inspirational. No person should be idolized, and I’m no groupie, but I have retained a certain admiration for some of these folks and thought it would be worthwhile to mention them. Honor to whom honor is due. . . .

  • Twila Paris, worship songwriter (and, to a lesser extent, a singer) whose contemporary anthems and God-oriented songs have moved many for more than two decades
  • Michael Card, songwriter (and, again, to a lesser extent, a singer) who has a particular gift with reducing large-scope biblical messages into coherent, poignant song lyrics
  • Michael W. Smith, the now-legendary Christian songwriter who has an absolutely horrible voice but whom I find to have both a creative gift and a humble heart
  • Fernando Ortega, singer-songwriter whose earthy lyrics are as beautiful as they are Godly
  • Bob Kauflin, known primarily a songwriter for Glad and other groups, but who also does steady, local church work in Maryland (his “I Stand In Awe,” by the way, has been corruptly dumbed-down by many a cappella churches)
  • Rich Mullins, who perished while driving in the Heartland some 10-or-so years ago, whose songs and mission with Native Americans were equally well-conceived
  • Graham Kendrick, a British songwriter who’s been “around,” having been part of the British worship renewal that began more than 20 years ago
  • Max Lucado, whose writings have probably touched millions … I haven’t kept up with the last 5 or 6 books but have been inspired many times in the past
  • and I should surely name Billy Graham, despite my disagreements with his soteriology … the man had/has character

I claim no personal knowledge of these people’s lives but have never heard them ill spoken of, and have a fair amount of experience with many of their works through the years. They seem sincerely enagaged in Kingdom work to me.

Would anyone care to add to the list?