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Thursday, October 16, 2014

#9 - Illumi-NOT-i
Misc Thoughts | 943 views

OK, it's time to get real, y'all, and talk about an elephant in the room.

Illuminati mania has reached an all-time high. 

A lot of you know what I'm talking about. Basically, for the handful of you in the world who aren't familiar, the belief out there is that there are a lot of people in power who are satanically motivated, seeking to express their allegiance to the secret luciferian cabal through their lyrics and various symbols used in their performances, music packaging, and photo shoots. 

Now, rather than get into a verbal battle about conspiracy theories and the like--Isaiah 8:12 says, "Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it."--I will say that the Bible calls satan the ruler of this world. Of course, that's a temporary role, given Jesus' ultimate return and fulfillment of the victory He already has achieved.

There's certainly a lot to consider when delving into the spiritual climate of pop culture. For example, there are a LOT of one-eyed references, which many attribute to the "all seeing" Egyptian "god," Horus. There are lots of baphomet likenesses (another Egyptian deity). There are lots of pyramid-type symbols, and things like checkered floors, owls and even teddy bears that raise eyebrows with people on the alert. You can look up the significance of these things--or not. 

It would be naive to assume that the evil prince of this world doesn't have a devoted following. Humans love power too much. But in the end, it really doesn't matter, in some senses, what the enemy is or isn't doing. We have the winning hand. We who are in Christ win, regardless of the circumstances. Let's keep the focus on Christ. There's a big difference between playing a game to win, and playing NOT to lose. Think about that for a second.

So all that said... Christian bands/artists, you gotta knock it off with the symbols. 

Artists at least need to be aware of what those symbols are. There are lots of examples, but here are just two higher-profile examples. TobyMac's Eye on It cover generated a lot of controversy because it was a one-eyed image--and that was after he had that weird cover song he did, "Ill-M-I." Toby caught a lot of unnecessary flack for it, and even had to address it head-on in the FAQ on his website. In the end, was the image worth it? I'd posit not. 

Other artists are putting triangles or pyramids on their album covers (even worship bands), doing the one-eye gesture that made Lady Gaga famous (why, Manny, why?), and the like.

Charmaine caught flack for having a heart over one eye on her Love Reality album. People took issue with the myriad of symbols (including lightning bolts, skulls, spiders, and--surprise!--a single eye) used in Andy Mineo's Never Land EP. And speaking of Andy, fans also remarked at his "Saturday Morning Car Tunez" logo change, which now features a one-eyed skull. Skillet's Awake album was a one-eyed wonder, as was Trip Lee's The Good Life. There are plenty more examples of this by signed and unsigned artists, chart-toppers and unknwons.

And here's the deal... all of these artists mentioned above are solid, Jesus-loving people with fruitful lives and powerful ministries that are leading people to Jesus! 

Look, I love you artists, and I'm quite certain you're not doing this on purpose. The last thing I want is for people to start questioning your Christianity over a stupid gesture or album cover instead of celebrating the "fruit" in your lyrics and lifestyles. 

So, please... stop it. Just... stop. 

I'm going to assume that these artists and bands are just following what appears to be artistic/cultural trends, but I think they need to err on the side of caution here. To many, having cuss words in Christian music would distract from what the artist is trying to accomplish (even if they feel that a certain word may drive a point home a little stronger). In the same way, these symbols serve as a distraction to the people trying to otherwise enjoy their tunes.

We can do better than to copy prevailing pop culture trends. There was a time in our history when the Church was setting the tone culturally and artistically. But, from just a really practical standpoint, it's not worth it to throw a large segment of your listeners into witchhunt mode. 

My sense is that this particular trend has cooled down a bit. (Hey, it looks like CIRCLES are the new TRIANGLES!) And that's GREAT news. Let's keep it that way.

Look, I get it. People are a little too hyped up on this kind of stuff. But unnecessary conflict, warfare and criticism just doesn't make a ton of sense in a critical time where people just need to focus on Jesus.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

#8 - Sing Unto the Lord an OLD Song or Two (If You Feel Like It)
Music | 410 views

I pretty much get the same thing at Starbucks every day. Iced coffee. I put a little half and half in it and one packet of raw sugar in as a nice little treat at the bottom. It's delicious, and it's going to be iced, even if it's below freezing outside. That's how I roll, and I like it that way.

We humans enjoy our comfort. We're creatures of habit, and like our morning Starbucks, we like what we like, and there's very little room for deviation. The problem is seeking sameness and stagnancy in a Kingdom of Change. 

The truth is, Church, we have a somewhat unhealthy addiction to the familiar. Now, obviously, as people of faith, there are some things that we cling to--universal Truth that never changes, such as the nature and the person of Jesus Christ. But sometimes we can take our faithfulness a bit too far. Really, when it comes to music, we buckle up and ride a song way past the 100,000-mile warranty. You'll see it in churches sometimes. The introduction of guitars into churches was met with quite a bit of skepticism, just as the introduction of printed words (and later overhead projectors and video screens) were in the technology world.

New feels weird to us. And maybe somewhere we think that if our familiarity goes away, so too will our faith. Of course, it might not be that profound. It might just be that the generation in charge suffers from a collective case of Musical Plateau Disorder (which I outlined in a previous blog) and can't stand what them youngins are listening to these days. (TURN DOWN THAT HIPPITY HOP, PUNK!)

The truth is, the Bible encourages us to "Sing a new song unto the Lord" (Psalm 96:1). There's something the Psalmist knew there that was important to communicate to us. I don't know about you, but when I've sang a worship song enough in church, it loses some of its punch to me. A song that may have had me crying the first or second time I sang it now is just sort of old-hat to me. Does it mean the words are less impactful? Does it mean the music is somehow not as good as I thought? Of course not! 

But there's something built into our humanity that is leaky. Hebrews 2:1 says, "So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it." In the original language, the term describing drifting away actually is more like "or it may leak out of us." We're also encouraged in Ephesians 5:18 to keep being filled with the Holy Spirit. 

So if that's true, we have to continually seek new expressions of truth and worship so that it continually remains new to us. For example, there was a song by Chris Quilala of Jesus Culture, "Your Love Never Fails" (which Newsboys covered), which was really impactful, only to be followed a few years later by Bethel's "One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)." In some cases, the same words are used, but each one came at its correct time to impact the Church with the same message. 

If that weren't true, if there was no value in presenting the same truth a different way, we really wouldn't have written anything past the hymns of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

So that's why we value new music. That's why it's OK to enjoy a song for a season and then seek out a fresh expression moving forward. God is always speaking, and we have to believe that the new songs that are being written are purposed by God to minister to His church now. 

All this to say, we're hanging on to songs a bit too long, Church.

If you take a look at the Billboard Charts, all but one of the current Top 10 singles has been released less than 20 weeks (or 5 months, roughly). Let's compare that to Christian music. Out of the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot Christian Singles chart, six out of 10 of the singles were older than 20 weeks, with the No. 2 song having been released a whopping 55 weeks! That's more than a year that Hillsong UNITED's "Oceans"--a great song, by the way--has been on the charts. It's a great song, but there are certainly others out there that deserve a listen, too!

Other songs on the chart have been released 18 weeks, 23 weeks, 28 weeks, 13 weeks, 26 weeks, 16 weeks, 35 weeks and 25 weeks. While those certainly seem old, it doesn't even really tell the full story, as the albums those songs came from, in many cases, are even older--some MUCH older. 

So instead of discovering new songs from new albums, we're listening to old songs from even older albums. In an environment where Christian music is in a new golden age, in terms of quality of music, songwriting and production, it's really too bad.

Look, I get that in the "mainstream" world, the songs written are usually about partying, booties or broken hearts. That's disposable stuff that has a short shelf life and really won't stand the test of time--so it makes sense to flush it every few weeks or so. I get that. But in our world, we have a tremendous message and great music that's coming at us with the force of a firehose, and we're still holding on to a handful of the same songs. 

What if we rallied behind one single per week from a new artist and saw the landscape start to change. We wouldn't be discarding the truly great songs, but we'd have some freshness join them in the regular rotation. Imagine what that would do in terms of exposing people to various facets of Christian music! It actually could change lives.

What do you think? How could this be accomplished?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

#7 - Rock Isn't Dead, but the Album is on Life Support
Music | 219 views

Gene Simmons made headlines recently when he said, “rock is finally dead.”
Of course, that bears some more explanation, as the KISS frontman didn’t really mean the musical genre as much as he meant that the current state of the music industry doesn’t allow for rock and roll (and plenty of other genres) to be made the way it was back in his day.

It’s true; the move among consumers from owning music to merely having access to it—which began near the turn of the millennium with Napster and other such platforms—has created a world where the thought of paying money for music is fairly preposterous to many. And services such as Spotify, Pandora and even Noisetrade show that the industry has either agreed with or given in to that mindset.

So what does that mean? Well, in reality, it’s that the record labels are taking in a fraction of the income they used to, and that trickles down to artists, their teams and marketing (on sites like ours, believe it or not)!

Here’s something a lot of Christian music fans don’t know: Chances are better than not that your favorite artist or band isn’t living in a fancy house in Franklin or Brentwood. They’re not driving Lexuses or eating steak every night for dinner. 

I know many bands that, despite being signed to a record label, work additional jobs to make ends meet. You’d be surprised how many artists do this. The truth of the matter is, this is more of a labor of love than it really ever could be about a lavish lifestyle. 

So that said, the new reality in the music world proves challenging to keep true artists around, making music, when they’re also trying to support families and put kids through college someday. 

There are, of course, some encouraging signs. Streaming services like Spotify (and, coming soon, The Overflow for Christian music only) have the ability to generate a decent amount of revenue over time with a critical mass of fans who, over and over, access their favorite band’s music. Streaming isn’t the future; it’s the present, and it’s cool to see some of the record labels getting on board and pushing it hard. 

But what of the album? What of the 12- to 14-track collection of material released from an artist every 18 months to two years? That may be (and should be?) a casualty of this new reality.

You’re seeing the shift already. Bands like All Sons & Daughters and Unspoken introduced themselves to the world with two EPs that created quite a buzz, and the world wanted more. Rather than pour all their heart and soul into a dozen tracks, they hyper-focused their attention on 3 to 6 tracks.

In our reviews on the site, many times we’ll find that a new band presents a lot of different musical properties during a debut album, and we’ll remark on what we felt worked well, and what didn’t, and that ultimately, the band needs to find their identity moving forward. It happens all the time.

With an album, that’s an expensive experiment, regardless of if it’s funded by a record label, a crowd-funding campaign, or the artists themselves. As a leaner project, an EP provides an amount of nimbleness in this distracted age. Bands can almost instantly see what worked and what didn’t and get to work on their next EP.

And the regular flow of music keeps the band in front of prospective and existing fans. Popping up every two years or so—without a dedicated fan base and heavy touring schedule—just isn’t going to make much of a ripple anymore.

When we talk with new artists, we always suggest that they put out EPs every six to nine months. One band that’s been tremendous at this is Phil Danyew’s band, HITPOINTS. The problem is, you probably haven’t heard of HITPOINTS. But you should!

And that’s why sites like ours still exist, still are needed, and still get advertising. Breaking through is the hard part in music, and that’s accomplished via word of mouth, sure, but mores through radio airplay and awareness campaigns on sites like ours.

In this age where we are, once again, radio single-driven (anyone else remember paying too much at Sam Goody for a one-song CD?), the idea of the album just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, after two EPs, many artists have slapped them together as a full album—with an extra song or two—and boom! They have a full-length record to take on tour. 

But the rest of the time, while the world is just looking for what they like on Spotify/RDIO/Beats Music/iTunes, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to put in the time, effort and money (that one body has) to produce a dozen tracks.

One exception this year? For KING & COUNTRY. I could’ve used about 20 more tracks on that album (Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.). Perfection.

Is rock dead? Nope. Pretty incredible stuff released this year from Anberlin, Flyleaf, Disciple and Demon Hunter, to name a few. But there are new realities in the music world we have to consider, both as creators and consumers, that will allow Christian music to thrive and reach more people than ever.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

#6 - The Year of Christian Films?
Movies Television | 376 views

Confession time. I have to admit, I haven't been the biggest fan of Christian-made movies in the past. And it's for all the reasons you've likely heard: Bad acting, overly preachy/cheesy dialogue that would never happen in real life, special effects that are at least 10 years behind mainstream films, and overly simplistic characters (with either no development or hyperspeed development). 

While I will be the first to say that I'm glad people are passionate about what they do and why they do it, it was near impossible for me to get into the films for all those reasons. A good, believable story with realistic characters that speaks to some felt human need will draw me in almost every time.

No, I'm not saying that salvation isn't a felt, human need--I'm just saying the way it's played out doesn't echo what plays out in our daily lives. Perhaps the rationale there is that the filmmakers are hoping that life imitates art, but more often than not, art that's best appreciated is something that imitates experiences we know from real life. I digress.

The year 2014 has been different. I'm not sure what happened, really. I think perhaps enough Christians out there realized that there's more to moviemaking than just the apocalypse or conversion story-type films. 

OK, brief break. Click the raptor image below to watch an awesome video... it proves my point. 


All that behind us, this past year was incredible, and I'd like to point out three of my favorites so far:

1. The Song

This film is pretty much the best faith-friendly movie I've ever seen. It's real. The people have real problems and are very flawed in many cases. The music is top-notch, and it is moving. The acting is spot on. The script is believable. And to top it all off, it's based on the life of Solomon. Alan Powell has shown us that beyond the boy-band sheen lies some grit and fight as an actor. The film evoked tears at the screening I watched, and I can't wait to see it again in theaters. The message of "life is hopeless without God and without love," resonates without it being specifically spelled out, like many movies of the past have done.

2. Mom's Night Out

How much fun was this movie? I'm a dad, so I could instantly relate to all the parenting issues displayed throughout (although my kids aren't quite the tornadoes that were in this movie). Patricia Heaton from The Middle and Everybody Loves Raymond was great as a pastor's wife, and lead character Allison (Sarah Drew from Grey's Anatomy fame) really sold the whole "trying to be the perfect mom" thing. I loved that there was some preachiness therein that didn't seem forced, and that at the end of the day, imperfect people realized that only with God could they really measure up. Great message, incredible comedy (I was busting up laughing) and something that's not embarrassing to bring non-Christians to. Oh, and Samwise Gamgee is in it--I mean, Sean Astin is in it!

3. God's Not Dead

I came into this one expecting standard Christian cinema, to be honest--and I was totally surprised at home a fairly simple plot setup--putting God on trial--could turn out to be so emotional, heady and natural feeling. Sure, there were some moments that harkened back to unrealistic dialogues and situations, but by and large, it was encouraging to see a very believable character in Shane Harper's Josh living out what it means to be as gentle as doves and as wise as a serpent (VERSE). Oh, and this was clearly Kevin Sorbo's best acting of his career, in my opinion. While it at times oversimplified the mindset of atheists (it's not always because of what God did or didn't do in their lives), and there were some gaping plot holes, I left with an overall feeling of hope and, probably most poignantly, camaraderie amongst fellow believers seeking to represent our faith honestly and gracefully. 

Honorable mention: Noah

Just kidding, guys. I know that could really fire you all up. Here's the deal. Sometimes Hollywood tries to court the faith-based wallets, and doesn't do all their homework. Films like Noah and Constantine are the result. If Noah would've changed all the characters' names, it probably wouldn't have ruffled as many feathers, because as a movie, it was pretty interesting to watch. I just had to constantly remind myself that it wasn't at all a biblical depiction. 

Of course, there still are plenty of great faith- and family-friendly movies I haven't seen yet, including another music-based film, The Identical, Heaven is for Real, Ragamuffin, Left Behind, and football films When the Game Stands Tall and 23 Blast. (You can learn more about these films on our Movie Trailers page on NRT.) 

All of these seem to have strengths. Some of those are strong actors. Others are strong stories and scripts. Others are the boldness to present some heavy subject matter (not always positive and encouraging). 

I don't know about you, but I'm perhaps disproportionally excited at where things are going in faith-based filmmaking. What's your favorite Christian-friendly movie?


Thursday, September 18, 2014

#5 - Stop the MPD Epidemic!
Music | 455 views

Over the years, I’ve discovered a dangerous phenomenon with people’s musical tastes. It can’t be cured by conventional means. It sets in at around age 30, and can last until… well… death.

Yes, MPD--or Musical Plateau Disorder--is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide, transforming them from the musically curious to the kinds of folks who say, “It’s not the way it used to be!” while angrily shaking their fist at young whipper snappers.

Are you suffering from this disorder? Here are some warning signs:

  1. You’re more familiar with an artist’s album from several years ago than those from this year. You can name all of the songs from Thousand Foot Krutch’s Welcome to the Masquerade, but have yet to even check out the band’s “Born This Way” from that new album you can’t name. Extra warning signs if you think TFK covered a Lady Gaga song.


  2. You aren’t exploring new artists. Maybe you think that the smoky, soulful voice of Lauren Daigle isn’t necessary because you’ve already got Dara MacLean. Making small compromises like this opens the door for MPD. Beware. Also, if your music discovery only consists of what you hear on the radio, you may run the risk of MPD exposure. “I Can Only Imagine” is a great song, but one must consider if there are new songs out there that can move you similarly. And exploring outside of “signed” artists into the mysterious world of independent bands certainly provides a strong defense against MPD.


  3. You get completely bent out of shape about a lead singer change and decide to stop listening to said band before remotely giving the new lineup a chance. The phrase, “No, it’s not the same without [fill in the blank],” is a self-evident remark that reveals a very aggressive form of MPD. The past two years since Kristen May has taken over Flyleaf has revealed a lot of people suffering from acute MPD. It’s really sad to see cases that are so severe that it leads to childish, Internet trolldom--especially when they're missing out on some pretty incredible music in the meantime. I’ve also seen it with people who used to follow Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline and Hawk Nelson. If this is you, it’s not too late to re-open your musical mind.


  4. You listen to worship music and say, “That has way too much synth!” or, conversely, say, “I can’t stand this Mumford and Sons style of dancing around the campfire worship!” These, my friends, are called trends in music, and while you’re entitled to your own tastes, the moment you set yourself against a prevailing trend, you put yourself at extra risk of developing MPD.


  5. You’ve stopped attending concerts. I know some incredible 50-somethings (and older!) who aren’t afraid to have their ears ring for several days in order to rock out at Creation Festival or other big-name shows. As soon as you start to feel like concerts are “for the kids,” or aren’t worth the trouble, watch out. Concerts are good vaccinations against MPD (especially if they’re bands you’ve never seen live), and we know what happens if you aren’t properly inoculated. 

Now that you know some of the warning signs, I trust that you’ll take this information and respond properly. MPD is a serious problem, and only through education, together, can we put an end to this epidemic once and for all. Please share this to spread the word. Thank you.

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