Previous month:
December 2006
Next month:
February 2007

January 2007

A Return

While I have enjoyed the three weeks I have taken off from regular daily posts, the time has also been good for reading and thinking about the blog. First, I've been able to make a number of serious design changes and added a lot of sidebar content. For one thing, I have added to my list of Essential Reading and Essential Listening -- a tough thing to do. I mean, where do you stop? Suffice it to say that these lists are not exhaustive but are an attempt to reflect records that I listen to regularly and books that I have read more than once (or will) and regularly recommend to others.

In addition, I have added secure online ordering for my now defunct record label, Silent Planet Records. You can order the entire back catalog! Each release has a sample track you can listen to right here on the blog. While I have not finished posting all the artists' records, I'll be regularly updating this area over the next couple of weeks. It's good music, and these artists need your support.

Finally, by virtue of Evoca, if you have a microphone equipped computer, you can actually leave a verbal comment for me online. How easy is that? Very. Regardless, I hope you will regularly check out the site an comment. The "Traveler's Guide" post, which is always at top, will clue you in as to what is new.

Thanks for visiting. And stay tuned for my first new post on February 1st.

A Traveler's Guide to OutWalking


Welcome to OutWalking, a likely over-ambitious source of reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world.  Here you can read posts on books, music, art, and life in general, from the standpoint of one who believes in the true "myth" as told in biblical account of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.  In addition to periodic reflections on faith, art, and life in this area (scroll down for the most recent posts), you'll also find useful content in the sidebars.  You can buy CDs of artists such as Jan Krist and Brooks Williams who were on my now defunct record label, Silent Planet Records.  Or check out what I'm currently listening to or reading, or what I regard as "Essential Reading" or "Essential Listening."  Finally, check out poetry, prose, or essays which I have written, projects I am currently involved in, or explore helpful links to other websites or blogs. 

You can also subscribe to new posts by email and leave written comments to a post or, if you have a microphone-enabled computer you can leave a voice comment via the Evoca link in the sidebar. If you're looking for something and can't find it, explore the posts by category, as listed in the sidebar, or use the search function in the sidebar. If you like the site, I hope you will let me hear from you. Now, enjoy!

Artist Compilations

I've had the privilege to work with many artists in the founding of two record labels over the last 12 years -- Silent Planet and The Pop Collective.  I continue to sell that music here.  Below are some of the best introductions to what we did as a label, in that these records are compilations of various artists both on and off roster. 

All payments are securely made through Paypal.  First-class mail shipping is included in the cost, and shipment will be made within 48 hours from ordering.  If you are not fully satisfied with any CD you receive from OutWalking, please email me for a full refund.

Beat_3Aliens_2 Aliens and Strangers/ Beat (2 Album Combo) -- Various Artists

For an excellent introduction to the work of Silent Planet Records and its artists, I recommend the two samplers released by the label.  Both give an insight into the label's mission (promoting acoustically grounded, lyrically intelligent, and spiritually provocative) and a good sampling of each artist's music.  Each also contains some unreleased tracks.  Beat also includes a bonus CD of the radio show we produced for a time called Wide Angle, hosted by John Fischer and brimming with music and insightful commentary and artist interviews.  I love the packaging of both these releases (done by the very talented Dave Danglis) and particularly enjoyed writing the text -- an attempt to provoke thought about art and faith.  Even after several years, these records hold up well.

Mgs_cover_2Making God Smile: An Artists' Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson -- Various Artists

Making God Smile is Silent Planet Record’s 2002 musical tribute to the songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The CD package, containing seventeen all-new renditions of some of the Beach Boys' and Brian Wilson's best-known music, also includes a full-color 24-page booklet. The booklet includes write-ups from each of the artists, commenting on the song they chose to cover, and on Brian's influence.  Artists include Phil Keaggy, Sixpence None the Richer, Randy Stonehill, Kevin Max, and Kate Campbell, among many others.

The songs were selected from the hit catalogue of virtually unparalleled Beach Boy and Brian Wilson songs. Each track was recorded specifically for the Making God Smile CD to celebrate Brian's 60th birthday and, simultaneously, to acknowledge his lifetime of exceptional work.  Conceived by Silent Planet Records President Steve West, Making God Smile immediately grew into a stunning collection of songs performed by a variety of artists from just about every genre of music. Included are platinum-selling performers, songwriters, first-rate sidemen, Grammy nominees and other professionals, each impacted by the exceptional music of Brian Wilson.

"This album is a gift to Brian on his 60th birthday, from many artists who have been profoundly influenced and touched by his music over the years," said Steve West. "The album title -- Making God Smile -- is both a nod to the legendary and unreleased [original] SMiLE recording and a recognition that music serves a higher purpose, a healing purpose, as Brian so often said."

I love this record.  My label manager, Tony Shore, and I handpicked each artist and each song, asked them to record it on their own and send it in, and then we sequenced and had the whole collection mastered.  I'm amazed at how it turned out, given this process!  It was the label's swansong, and a fitting way to finish.  When I asked Brian Wilson what he thought of it, the man of few words said "It's great!"

Listen here to Phil Keaggy's version of "Good Vibrations:" (click twice) 

MgssqcovMaking God Smile: The Lost Disc (Disc 2) --- Various Artists:

When my cohorts and I at Silent Planet Records created Making God Smile: An Artists' Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, we had so much good material that we could not fit it on one disc.  So, in order to honor the man and the artists who donated the songs, we released the 2-disc version of the recording on the internet only.  It quickly sold out.  Many people have requested the nine songs on the bonus disc, so many that we now refer to it as the "lost" album (shades of the original Smile),  so we make them available here for those who have purchased the single disc version and want "the rest of the music."

Note that these nine songs will be sent to you on CDR only.  We have no plans to manufacture more 2-CD versions of this release in original packaging. Here is a track listing: 1. Caroline, No --- Frank Lenz & Richard Swift 2. With Me Tonight --- The Lost Dogs 3. You Still Believe In Me --- Jeff Elbel & Ping 4. God Only Knows --- Kate Miner 5. Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) --- Jacob Lawson & Riki Michele 6. Sloop John B --- Irwin Icon 7. Good Vibrations (Guitar Ending Mix) --- Phil Keaggy 8. Tom Prasada-Rao & Amilia K. Spicer --- Your Imgaination (Extended Mix) Bonus Track 9. Brain Wilson's Room --- Harrod & Funck

Live_stageLive From the Acoustic Stage - Various Artists

Another of my favorite projects, this album was culled from some great perfomances by both Silent Planet and other artists from the several years when the label hosted the Acoustic State at Cornerstone Music Festival.  Ah, I can feel the dirt, the heat, and mud from that patch of cornfield west of Peoria, Illinois now!  But the best part of C'Stone is the great music -- much of which was on our stage.

There are 13 artists here and 18 tracks, everyone fromTerry Scott Taylor to the Lost Dogs to Aarron Sprinkle to Tom Prasada-Rao.  There rae funny moments too, as wehn Phil Madeira introduces his song with a humorous story of the goings on around C'Stone.  God bless him.  It takes me back.  Enjoy a piece of history with this record.

Here's a good one by Brooks Williams called "Love came Down:" 

Jan Krist

All payments are securely made through Paypal.  First-class mail shipping is included in the cost, and shipment will be made within 48 hours from ordering.  If you are not fully satisfied with any CD you receive from OutWalking, please email me for a full refund.

Jan_krist_photo_ron_moore_182 This is how it begins: I invited Jane Krist to do a concert in my church. She came. Afterwords we are talking and I simply say "Jan, if there is anything I can do for you, let me know." There was. Jan was on a CCM label at the time and having difficulties. I ended up buying her contract, and the rest is history!

Jan Krist began writing and singing songs in Detroit-area folk clubs back in 1980. At the time she was a young mother, and a graduate of Berkley High School who had grown up in Grand Haven.

Over the years she began spreading her wings beyond the Metro area, winning praise at the nationally known Kerrville Songwriting Competition in Texas in 1991, and then releasing her first album of songs, Decapitated Society, in 1992. That album won praise from Billboard and other magazines, and Krist followed it up with 1993's Wing and a Prayer, which also garnered accolades. She was honored as Best Vocalist in the Acoustic Division at the Detroit Music Awards in 1995.

In 1996 she celebrated the release of the intelligent and polished Curious, with a show at the Ark in Ann Arbor. And then there was more -- Outpost of the Counter-Culture, and Wounded Me Wounded You.  There are many accolades, but this one from Billboard sums them up well:  “Her talent as a songwriter equals - if not surpasses her vocal gifts. She has an uncanny way of cutting to the heart of a topic and providing the listener with food for thought.”

Through it all she has raised her kids -- Amy, Ian and Michael -- and stayed in Detroit. She married Alan Finkbeiner in 1995. "And that's why they call me Jan Krist," she says with a laugh. Visit her website at

DecapWing_1 Decapitated Society/ Wing and a Prayer -- Jan Krist

The very first artist I signed to Silent Planet Records, Jan Krist, is often called Detroit's folk diva, with her soaring voice, well-crafted songs, and fine guitar playing.  When I first heard Decapitated Society (released in the Christian market with a strange title like that!), I thought it was Joni Mitchell-meet-God time.  Wing and a Prayer followed that minimalist debut with a bit more instrumentation but more of the same great songs and singing.  In this release, we combined the two CDs in a remastered version -- two albums, one disc, one low price.  We went on to record more produced records by Jan, but when I think of her music, I inevitably return to these early records as embodying the most pure form of her art.  I owe my involvement in the music business to Jan, and though it had its hard times, I do not blame her for that.  I'm glad to have done it.

Listen to Jan's "Someone" here (click twice):

Curious Curious -- Jan Krist

Curious was the first record done for Silent Planet exclusively by Jan Krist. I traveled to a studio outside of Decatur, Georgia for the recording. Some say its warmth is due to the fact that it was recorded in analog and mixed digitally. I'm not sure. But what I love on this record is the diversity of the music and the well-crafted songs. More than any other record by Jan, this one rocks at times, particularly with that kickoff by "Time" and the placement of the title track midway through the record. This packaging is not what was on the initial release. We re-released it with new and much better packaging and the addition of two unreleased cuts. It's one of the few records that actually saw any significant airplay!

Listen to "Curious" here:

Love_big Love Big Us Small -- Jan Krist

After the modest success of Curious, we needed a follow-up, and yet we had a great deal of material that was out of print or unreleased.  Hence, Love Big Us Small was a cobbled together record.  WE had Jan fly to LA and record four new tracks with producer David Miner, "Song of Absolutes," "Tarzan Tells All," "Spirit So Big," and "God Have Mercy," some of jan's loveliest songs.  Then we threw in a few cuts from Decapitated Society (out of print and not re-released by us yet), and some alternate takes from Wing and a Prayer.  The latter tracks were actually from a completely separate recording of Wing's songs produced by Armand Petri.  Petri gave the songs an alternative twist that Jan was uncomfortable with at the time, but she consented to letting us release for the first time some of these recordings here.  I'm glad of it.  They offer an interesting and refreshingly different take on the songs, and I think Armand was glad to see them released as well.  (Jan went on to completely re-record Wing for her previous label after the Petri tracks were rejected, and we bought all the material.)  This is good music, and I'm glad for this albums release even if it was a cobbled together collection.  It works well.

Check out the great "Tarzan Tells All:" 

Outpost of the Counter-Culture -- Jan Krist

OutpostOf all of Jan Krist's fine records, none capture the sense of place, of home, as well as 2001's Outpost of the Counter-Culture.  Musically, the record is firmly in the folk music camp.  Thematically, its focused on home, that is, home at the time for Jan, which was Royal Oak, Michigan.  Hence, in the title cut, subtitled "Hometown," you actually hear the strains of the local high school marching band.  Somehow, too, I suspect that the songs here are peopled by those who Jan has had contact in Royal Oak, and there's a sense of thankfulness evident here ("Thank You").  You'll also find Jan's wittiest song here, "Parallel Universe."  I like the warmth and hometown feel of this record.

Listen to "Outpost of the Counter-Culture (Hometown)" here:

WoundedWounded Me Wounded You -- Jan Krist

Jan's last offering for Silent Planet, Wounded Me Wounded You, has some beautiful songs, from the creatively titled "St. John Reads the 21st Century Want Ads" to her cover of The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee."  There's a little country twang here, as Jan's Nashville friend, Kenny Meeks, joins her for many songs.  Truth, judgment, sin, blessing -- the album really speaks the language of faith without in any way preaching.  Really, it about those who "need help along the way," about the "wounded," about us all, really.

Listen to "Blessed Are They" here: 

Jerry Read Smith

JerryTo date, North Carolina's Jerry Read Smith has designed and handcrafted over 1000 hammer dulcimers and made four professional recordings featuring the instrument. He works out of his self-designed and constructed 2400sq/ft workshop in the rhododendrons and oaks next to his house (and soon, a recording studio as well) and maintains a musical instrument showroom in nearby Black Mountain called Song of the Wood Music.

In addition to assisting in the business, Jerry's wife Lisa plays the flute and piano and has joined Jerry on the last two recordings, Homecoming (part of The Strayaway Child Trilogy) and One Wintry Night, a collection of original compositions and arrangements of seasonal tunes inspired by the beautiful Christmas story by Ruth Bell Graham of the same name. It's music for all ages - from children to grandparents - and a wonderful Christmas gift.  Be sure and visit them at

StrayawayThe Strayaway Child Trilogy -- Jerry Read Smith

When I first heard Strayaway Child, the first album in a trilogy by the same name, it was sometime around 1981, the age of vinyl, and I picked up the recording on a whim.  As I listened, I realized that it was unlike anything I had ever heard.  I had never seen a hammered dulcimer, much less heard one, and I was entranced by the sound.  While more people have heard hammered dulcimers today, this record is one of my two favorite hammered dulcimer records of all time!  It has some wonderful renditions of Celtic tunes, with backing by guitar and other instruments, and a beautiful rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

In the years following the release of Strayaway Child, Jerry went on to release two more records, Heartdance and Homecoming, thereby completing the Trilogy.  This two-CD set is a beautifully repackaged and remastered version of all three albums, now on two discs.  The sound is stunning.  In addition, Jerry and wife Lisa give an interview about he creative impetus behind the projects.  This is still one of my all-time favorite records.

Listen to a mellow original number, "Homecoming," here (click twice):

Listen to a more Celtic-laced tune, "Kesh Jig/ The Kid On the Mountain," here: 

OwncdOne Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith

Jerry was inspired to record this album of traditional Christmas carols and three original compositions by a book of the same title by Ruth Bell Graham.  We pared Jerry with producer Jeff Johnson, and Jerry and Lisa flew to Seattle to record with Jeff.  Jeff then brought in some renowned Irish musicians, to include Brian Dunning, with whom he had recorded for Windham Hill and Hearts of Space.  The result is a beautiful recording, with rich instrumentation.  Ever since hearing these beautiful tracks, I associate the hammered dulcimer with the Christmas season, as that seems to be its language.

Listen to the beautiful "One Wintry Night" here: 

All payments are securely made through Paypal.  First-class mail shipping is included in the cost, and shipment will be made within 48 hours from ordering.  If you are not fully satisfied with any CD you receive from OutWalking, please email me for a full refund.

A Blog Sabattical

Sleeping_man2If you are a regular reader of this blog, I just wanted to let you know that I will be taking a short sabbatical for three weeks.  I began blogging one year ago with the goal of writing each day for one year.  Except for about 10 days when I was in Europe last Summer, I was able to do this.  My goal was to make myself write each day something of substance.  I've enjoyed it.  And I have appreciated many of you who have encouraged me by your comments, on and offline.

I've found it a helpful discipline.  At the same time, I realize that the immediacy of it makes it ill-suited for some writing that needs revision and development -- like a significant short story.  Sometimes, my off-the-cuff mini-essays would benefit from revision, further development, or even abandonment as well.  Reading a few of them now makes me grimace.  That's the risk of such writing, thoughts that probably belong in a private journal until they are better developed and more carefully considered.  Writers have the unfortunate tendency to believe whatever they've written is gold, particularly if they just wrote it.  Not so!  (Of course you know that.)

During this time I'd like to continue writing each day.  There is a short story I need to finish.  I also hope to evaluate the purpose of writing in this blog.  If you have comments for me, I'm glad to listen.  In some or fashion, I expect I'll be back on February 1st.  Please come back!

Epiphany: The Journey of the Magi

MagiThe Journey of the Magi

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor
     and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack
     of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill
     beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away
     in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves
     over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces
     of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so
     we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding our place; it was (as you may say)

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth
     and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot (published in 1930)

English poet T.S. Eliot became a Christian in 1927 and was baptized in the Anglican church.  I've always liked this poem which, though in many ways like a complaint, demonstrates that for those who encounter  Christ life is never the same.  It is the Death of the old life and old gods and the beginning of a new life -- even if it is one that is not easy at first.  One can surmise that Eliot, like the Magi speaking in the poem, having encountered Christ, has a profound sense of alienation from the world around him.  It's a natural feeling for one who belongs to another Kingdom.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas: Tweflth Night

Snow_11Fittingly, the last stanza of the song, with its twelve drummers drumming, is symbolic of the twelve points of doctrine found in the Apostles Creed.  Actually, I never counted them, but it appears there are in fact twelve!

I'm stopped short for a moment when I read the very first article of the creed --- "Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth" -- because so much is affirmed in this short phrase.  I like what the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 26) says about what we mean when we say this: "That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father.  I trust him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father."  There's really great truth and warm assurance in that summary of what we confess. 

With that, we come to the end of the 12 days of Christmas, a merry song that might also be a good mnemonic for Christian truths.  For some Christians, tonight is celebrated as the Twelfth Night, the last night before Epiphany, which historically is a celebration of the Visitation of the Magi.  I've always wanted to have a 12th Night party!  It's not to happen this year.  But at least I can remember what great gifts I have been given in faith and celebrate the gift of a New Year.

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas

Snow_10In a time when we can connect with and be a part of a worldwide community of people through the internet (though I doubt such a tenuous connection qualifies one in using the word "community"), it's instructive to note that Jesus spent most of his limited public ministry with a small group of men and a few women.  As the song intimates there were eleven faithful apostles (the eleven pipers piping), as Judas betrayed him.

That this is a good model of ministry has been recognized by many.  One I remember well is that of Robert E. Coleman's Master Plan of Evangelism, first published in 1963, and which is now in its second edition and ninth printing, meaning it must have something to say.  In it Coleman states his premise that Jesus's methods were as much a part of his evangelism as was his message, and he proceeds to detail a method that focused on intensive discipleship of a small group of men as opposed to mass conversions.  Master_plan Coleman said that "[m]ost of the evangelistic efforts of the church begin with the multitudes under the assumption that the church is qualified to preserve what good is done. The result is our spectacular emphasis on numbers of converts, candidates for baptism, and more members for the church, with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God, let alone the preservation and continuation of the work."

I doubt there's any serious disagreement with the thrust of what he said, which was a healthy corrective to large scale evangelistic campaigns which tallied up converts and then moved on to their next conquests.  With a Christianity that's a mile wide and an inch thin, not only here but in places like South Korea and Africa where there are many converts and a growing church, his book is worth revisiting.

But I'd go farther than Coleman, or at least farther than his book details.  Christians need discipling not only in spiritual disciplines -- Bible reading and study, prayer, and worship, for example -- and moral instruction, but also in integrating faith and all of life.  That's nothing new, and yet it's not often practiced.  We're put here to "till and keep" the Creation, given a mandate to develop culture with love and zeal for God's glory.  There's a lot of work to do because we spend so much time running from the culture, setting up our own alt-culture, that we fail to do the challenging work of loving the one we're in, of helping restore in some small way the communities, cities, trades, vocations, and institutions we all find ourselves a part of.

That has to be a part of any master plan of evangelism.  What does Jesus say?  "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."  Would it not be evangelistic for Christians who have been discipled in a culture-reforming Christianity to so live such that others see us as the ones who will preserve culture?  (It doesn't mean everyone would like us, as some want to destroy a culture built on Christian assumptions about the good, true, and beautiful.)  Maybe we need to leave the church building and spend most of our time with non-Christians, involved with them in our communities.  Scary thought, isn't it?

Coleman's method also seems a good one for a cynical culture, one mistrustful of institutions like the church.  Personal contact and deep community is necessary for the building of the church.  And yet, it's risky.  And it's uncomfortable.  Maybe that's where we (where I) need to be.

On. . . the . . . Tenth. . . Day. . . of . . . Christmas (Are We There Yet?)

Snow_9I have a petty love of perfection.  Having begun something, I feel compelled to finish it.  Tenth day of Christmas?  Bah!  I'm tired of the song and ready to move on.  And yet, maybe that's good.  Maybe it's time to get creative.  Sure, the ten lords-a-leaping are supposed to refer to the Ten Commandments, but there are a lot of other tens out there.

Like Bo Derek.  Dudley Moore thought she was a "10" but found out when he finally met up with her that a "10" isn't necessarily what you think it is, that reality doesn't match the ideal.

Ever wonder why it is we usually count to ten or rank things one to ten? Probably because we have ten toes and ten fingers.  And I'll let you wonder why we have ten of those.

And then there's those words with ten in them, words I'm seeing everywhere, like ten-tative, or ten-t, or ten-drils, or ten-dacious.  It's enough to make you ten-se.

But sticking to scripture, ten proves to be a popular number.  Ten shekels, ten silver coins, ten minas.  Ten days, ten times, ten years.  Ten female donkeys, ten bulls, ten sheep.  Ten loaves, ten cheeses, ten concubines.  Ten basins, ten candlesticks, ten tables, ten lampstands. Ten talents.  Ten is all over the place, almost as popular as three.

10Some people really are quite taken with what might be called Bible numerics.  For example, Andrew Harris says that "[t]en implies completeness of order, nothing lacking and nothing over. It signifies that the cycle is complete and that everything is in its proper order. Thus ten represents the perfection of divine order. "  Hmmm.  Indeed, he has a whole website devoted to such things.  (Ah, poor Aussie spends his time on such ten-der things!  It's a strange world down under.)

As for me, enough of such silliness.  I'm going to bed.  It's ten o'clock, and I've spent ten times too much time twittering on about these tens.  (Alliteration, now that's something worth talking about.  Another day maybe.)

When God Came Down: A Review of Incarnation

IncarnationEvery Christmas season I look for a new book that will help focus my thoughts on the old message of the Incarnation in a new and fresh way.  This season Oxford theologian Alister McGrath's Incarnation has helped me do that.

Incarnation is a small, beautifully illustrated hardback book wherein McGrath reflects on the mysteries of his subject in  seven short chapters, melding scripture, theological reflection, poetry, and fine art prints.  In this way, the book engages both mind and imagination.  It is thoroughly orthodox and yet does not reduce the mystery of God's coming in flesh to mere doctrine or theology.  Artwork like George Richmond's Christ and the Woman of Samaria really opens up the narrative by helping demonstrate what it was to encounter Christ. 

I like how McGrath speaks about the the development of doctrine as an attempt to preserve mysteries -- something it cannot fully do because human words cannot do justice to the person of Jesus.  "Doctrines were never meant to be a substitute for Christian experience.  Rather, they were meant to be a kind of 'hedge,' marking out and safeguarding an area of thought about God and Christ which seemed to be faithful to Christian experience on one hand, and Scripture on the other."  He notes how the church struggled for years with how to make sense of the Incarnation, finally adopting the "two natures" formula in the council of Chalcedon in 451 -- a "hedge" which is faithful to Scripture and experience but, in the end, like all doctrines, finally mysterious.

The book's scope is clearly beyond Bethlehem.  In the seven chapters, each of which can be read in less than 20 minutes, he addresses Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, as Saviour, as the one who called the disciples, as the teacher with authority, as the friend of sinners, as the way, the truth, and the life, and as God with us.  The prose is fresh, and the poetry excerpts are helpful in giving new metaphors for old truths.  For example, he recites Thomas Prestell's "Psalm for Christmas Day Morning:"

Behold the great Creator makes
Himself a house of clay,
A robe of virgin flesh he takes
Which he will wear for ay.

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
Like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
And God in cradle lies.

House of clay.  God in cradle.  The imagery is rich.  The inclusion of such poetry in the book, much of which will be unfamiliar to most, really creates a richer meditation -- new perspectives on an old truth.

Incarnation is the second book in a series of forthcoming books by Fortress Press, all authored by McGrath, which will explore Christian doctrines in a similar way.  (Only one other title, Creation, has been published thus far).  I commend them all to your reading as a way to awaken your mind and imagination to the deep truths and mysteries of our faith.

On the Ninth Day of Christmas

Snow_8You know, I just realized: Christmas is way over for the rest of the world and here I am on the ninth day of Christmas.  Oh, what contrarian glee!  Folks, it's not even Epiphany yet!  The candles in the windows are still lit.  Come on now.

The nine ladies dancing of the ninth day are supposed to symbolize the nine gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  When I think of each of these, I can think of something to do in regard to each, some way I can do something to effectuate the particular fruit in my life.  Self-control?  Bite my tongue.  Don't blurt out what I'm thinking.  Kindness? Take a sick neighbor a meal.  Rake their leaves.  Pick up the groceries the lady dropped in the grocery store.  Hold the door.

But two of these fruits -- joy and peace -- seem different. . . like in that you can't get there from here.  You can't just do something to see these fruit in your life.  You have to aim somewhere else to get the thing you want.

When I think of peace, I think of that oft-cited verse from Philippians 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  I used to dislike this verse because I focused on the "Do not be anxious part of it." I could never quite do that.  You can't aim at not worrying.  You just worry!  I found that the best thing I could do was simply to aim at Jesus, to focus on thanking him for what I had.  Then peace will come -- not immediately, perhaps, but sooner or later.  Aim at Jesus and you get peace as a byproduct of that relationship.  To the extent I don't experience that, I'm just imperfect and growing in my trust in God over the circumstances of my life.

Joy is the same way.  Get joy?  How do you do that?  It's not the same as being happy.  You can't just turn it on.  It's something different -- a deep, settled contentment that comes from knowing God.  Again, I think this comes by focusing not on what might make me happy but simply on God.

So what's new about all this?  Absolutely nothing.  But it's  a new year and I want to aim at the right thing, at the right person.  I might just have joy and peace.

On the Eighth Day of Christmas

Snow_7Eight maids-a-milking?  You know, I really don't think the objects of the song have any relation to that which they are supposed to symbolize!  But these eight maids point to the eight beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matt. 5:3-10).

These eight "blesseds" become real to me many years ago when I read John Stott's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-CultureStott lays out the case for a truly counter-cultural community of Christan fellowship marked by radical obedience to Christ.  The beatitudes really are characteristics that each Christian, by God's grace, should strive to exemplify.  The promises follow as blessings for those who seek after each quality.

I used to trip over the one that says "blessed are the meek."  I don't want to be meek if being meek means being a doormat for the world.  But I've come to see the strength in humility, in not thinking more highly of myself than I ought, in bearing with the faults of others, and in serving others -- even those these things are a struggle for me.

What I Read Over Christmas Break

MagazineAfter Christmas, my family and I retired to a condo at the coast for some much needed rest.  I picked up 35 to 40 magazines that had been accumulating, unread, since earlier in the Fall when, after the relative calm of Summer, life became hectic.  I was determined to get through them, reading at least one substantive article from each, and not to return with any of them in tow.  I just about succeeded.

What I am reminded of in this process is how accumulating magazines really feeds by petty ego.  I guess I think that I must be thinking important thoughts if I have so many journals and magazines.  But  having looked through them, I realize that a good book is far more valuable than most magazines.  That being said, there are exceptions, and I note a few articles that I picked up on here:

Two Christmas-themed articles inspired me.  In Wilfred McClay's God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: On Celebrating the Darker Meaning of Christmas (Touchstone, Dec. 2006), he commends the wonderful lyrics of traditional carols, songs we often know by heart but need to stop and really listen to.  I can identify, as I remember the words of a traditional hymn striking me anew at an office party once, making me want to shout "Do you know what you're singing?" to revelers.  And Richard Phillips' From Heaven to Earth (byFaith, Dec. 2006) is a great reminder that the Incarnation is about God coming to restore the earth, take rescue us from the earth, giving significance and value to the place in which we find ourselves.

I finally subscribed to Consumer Reports, and I immediately found an article, Stuffy Nose: How to Ease the Congestion, (Jan. 2007) of great help in navigating the panoply of cures lining the shelves of the drugstore (I am suffering from a walloping head cold!).  No magic bullet.  Rest, liquids, chicken soup, and judiciously applied medicines.  And while I was suffering I read about the origin and history of Lionel Trains in American Heritage (Lionel, Dec. 2006).  Just a bit of nostalgia for my childhood and my son's childhood, I guess, but an interesting story of entrepreneurial quick-steps and mis-steps in a business dating back to the turn of the century (1900, that is.)

Then it was back to matters of faith.  Matthew Cable had a helpful summary of what to say and what not to say at funerals, with the helpful and biblical theological point that we do not get resurrection bodies immediately at death but on Christ's Second coming.  The point: Be comforting, but be true. (Funeral Faux Pas: Avoiding Misstatements About Death, Christian Research Journal, Vol. 29. No. 2, 2006).  And although I know little about science and depend on others to lead me into all truth here, I appreciated the helpful critique of Francis Collin's The Language of God, an attempt to ground evolution in a theistic and Christian framework, by Jonathan Witt (Random Acts of Design: Francis Collins Sees Evidence That God Made the Cosmos - But Life Is Another Matter, Touchstone, Oct. 2006 [my behindness, if you pardon the expression, is showing here]).  Witt demonstrates the inherit contradictions in Collin's theory.  And then there's global warming, which there is large agreement on but disagreement on its cause and what we should do about it.  In a couple of different articles in Faith & Freedom, a publication of The Institute on Religion and Democracy, writers take issue with the Evangelical Climate Initiative.  I can only conclude that it's so difficult as a layperson to reach a thoughtful position on this issue.

Finally, I appreciated Denny Burk's summary and critique of UNC-CH Prof Bart Ehrman's popular Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. (Much Ado About Typos, Touchstone, Dec. 2006).  (Sorry, that one's not online.)  It's a bit I felt challenged to read but did not want to read, as I knew I would not have the time to read other books critiquing it!  Bottom line:  Nothing new.  We know there are typos in copying Scripture texts, but most are inconsequential.  Ehrman just taps into the cynicism and mistrust of religion and the church that is already out there to sell old news.

And so, there you have it, some fairly decent if scattered magazine reading from my holiday break.  My resolution: quit at least half these publications next year.  Read more books.  And question the value of such reading all the time until I figure out what really bears fruit.

Now, where's the recycle bin. . .