Friday, January 11, 2008

this week: new music; book reviews; great hopes and bitter disappointments

In no way would I consider myself an expert "critic" or "reviewer" but since I am trying to grow in my critical thinking and communication skills, here are my thoughts about the music and books I've been enjoying of late.

Snow Angels by Over the Rhine
I have just discovered this husband/wife team and am completely mesmerized! Read the band bio here. (you may also be interested to know that the duo are Christ-following artists)
I have not yet listened to other albums by OtR, but have a hard time believing there will be another that I like more than Snow Angels. And, while it is, in fact, a "Christmas" album I may not ever take it out of my playlist because it is just that kind of earthy, well-crafted and original music I love any day of the year. I especially love New Redemption Song, White Horse, North Pole Man and Snowed In With You. (the last two you'll want to share with the love of your life!)

The Blood by Kevin Max's that Kevin Max...that guy from DC Talk who seems to have mastered the look and vocals of a brooding, artsy, rock-star guy. I have always enjoyed his vocal talent and now I'm even more impressed by his willingness to dig into a unique album project that stretches out of the rock/pop genre while maintaining his own sound.
The album explores (or should I say sticks its toes into the water of) the roots of rock (Gospel), but doesn't try to be something Max is not (a black soul singer).
My favorite song? A cover of Blind Boys of Alabama Run On For A Long Time (sung with A.I. finalist Chris Sligh) While you're looking that up on iTunes, check out Johnny Cash's version too.
As far as production quality, I'm such an amateur at understanding the nuances, but I would say that is my least favorite category of this recording. It felt a little too bland for such an interesting concept. Every once in awhile throughout the recording there's a hint of a productioon thread that taps into the concept (white rock star singing old gospel songs), but, overall, the interesting sounds and instrumentation added seemed a little timid. I would have enjoyed a lot more of production innovation of David Crowder's A Collision


Tender at the Bone: Growing Up At the Table by Ruth Reichl
An excellent and, oh so much fun, memoir from the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet magazine. Although I did not realize who the author was when I picked up the book and do not consider myself even slightly intersted in the world of gourmet cooking, I just had so much fun reading this book.
For one thing, I enjoyed the voice this writer uses and would like to model her in my own writing. She is just an excellent storyteller and even admits up front to a few exaggerations (even fabrications!) when they help the story along. Even still, what a very interesting -- bizarre even! -- life she experienced growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1960's.
Two additional characters join the cast of her detached German father and manic-depressive mother, FOOD (in full mouth-watering description) and TRAVEL (exotic and spontaneous). It's no wonder that upon completing the last page I had the strong urge to fly to Greece to eat olives and then to Italy to drink wine!
If you do like to experiment with cooking, you'll especially enjoy the recipes that are integrated into each great story in each chapter. Please let me know if you decide to cook up a few...I'll be right over!

They Like Jesus But Not The Church by Dan Kimball
Two factors influenced my decision to read this book.
1. The title is just so dang intriguing!
2. I heard the author speak for a tiny portion of a main stage presentation at the Willow Arts conference back in June and was totally impressed with the way he could present difficult and, even controversial, material in a completely humble and Christ-focused manner. His writing does not diminish that quality in the least.
While I would not recommend this book for someone who is just looking for something to read with a glass of wine and an overstuffed chair, I would suggest it for anyone who is interested in what post-Christian people are believing about the institution of the Church.
I think, in part, the slowness of my reading this book was due to my own current struggle in living out of true love for the Church. I couldn't take too much of the content of this book at one sitting and had to pace myself.
I appreciate highly Dan Kimball's humble, yet passionate voice, and in this way he reminds me of the voice of one of my favorite authors, Donald Miller. Miller is a much better writer as far as narrative goes, but the content of the message is very similar.
Kimball takes an excellent approach to an important topic -- interviewing people who don't like the church, but do like Jesus -- sound familiar? -- and sharing large portions of those conversations as the basis for the book. He seems to be able to dive into the disappointments and even accusations of these people without placing a priority on their opinion over the biblical calling of the Church.
He places a major emphasis on the need (and even desire) of today's generation to learn and understand biblical history and theology. However, Kimball's major point is to encourage us, Christ's followers, to get out of an separatist mindset (using the image of a church bubble) that warps us into believing we are to focus on going to church or doing church stuff. Instead he places a passionate plea for those who follow Christ to embrace a missional mindset that would cause us to start being consumed with being the Church -- the supernatural, living and breathing bride of Christ. (and as an, oh,by the way, being the Church will include going to church and doing church stuff). This would be an excellent discussion guide for anyone wanting to challenge their own thinking and experiences.

Peppermint-Filled Pinatas: Breaking Through Tolerance and Embracing Love by Eric Michael Bryant
This title was also suggested during the Willow Arts Conference back in June. As far as writing excellence goes, this book was extremely simplistic which, at times, made a provactive subject seem boring. I think the book is far better suited (and maybe even more intended) as a discussion guide. The discussion would inevitably be heated and passionate regarding how we, in the church, view "evangelism" as an agenda to change people's behavior rather than loving them where they currently live and believe and behave. As we love people because they are people and even like people because they are people, we trust Jesus to call them to Himself and to transform their lives. When we are embracing a lifestyle of love rather than a religious sort of tolerance, the people we would love and hang out with would include those of different religions, races, economic standing, lifestyles, and even democrats! (that's a political joke in case you were wondering)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Kaled Hosseini
Last summer, my mom loaned me The Kite Runner by the same author. This Christmas my son, gave me Hosseini's second title (also on many best-seller lists). Both books are fictional, but based in current Afghanistan (by current I'm referring the last 50 years.The story in Suns ends just after 9/11/2001.)
Hosseini is another excellent storyteller and quickly enveloped me into a world that is completely foreign to me -- not just because it is across the world, but nothing about the terrain, Muslim religion, political process, poverty and family structure resembles even closely my own American experience. As any great storyteller, though, Hosseini is able to bridge those differences with the human commanility of love for family, grief over loss, suffering from hardship and other emotions such as loneliness, doubt and even hope for a better future. This particular story centers around the life of women in a Muslim culture -- a culture that shifts from comfortable tradition to extreme abuse depending on the political climate. I felt like I left the story with a far greater understanding and appreciation for the conflicts in the Arab/Muslim world.
As just a sidenote, I felt like the story of A Thousand Splendid Suns was diminshed by an ending that was a little bit too "and they lived happily ever after." I think we all know better.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
After reading this book, Tami felt....(check all that apply)
Wistful for beautiful travel -- check
Hungry for delicious pasta and savory wine -- check
Eager to enjoy the love and friendships in my life -- check
Mad as hell at the narcissistic false gospel the author gushes -- check.
The book is a memoir of Gilbert's year of travel to "find herself" across Italy (thus, the fabulous eating), India (and there's the yoga-like meditative praying) and, finally, Indonesia (Bali to be exact where she claims to learn to love, but really is more like "I'm so lucky to be able to not have to work for a year while I escape to this beautiful paradise and since I've been so wounded by my failed marriage and this poor, hard life of being a disappointed, wealthy and intelligent woman I've earned the right to jump into bed with this handsome, passionate, rich man who expects nothing from me and will make all my sexual fantasies come true.") Please.
I'll give you that I thoroughly enjoyed Gilbert's writing style and could learn a lot from that alone. She blends profound, personal insights with an accessible and conversational style. I also benefited from her writing because it allowed me to clearly "hear" the spiritual and relational longings of our culture -- particularly the fellow women in my culture.
But I HATED the blatantly celebrated narcissism of everything the author concludes about God and herself (actually that should read "everything the author concludes about herself as god") This mentality came out loud and clear in an arrogant view toward men and marriage and family and a non-existant view of Jesus. After watching Oprah and her audience gush over the woman (why was no one ticked off that Gilbert's spirituality was found because she had the time and money to travel around the world for a year doing whatever she wanted with whomever she wanted??? how many people do you know who get to live like that???) and after an unbelievably disappointing week learning about another church member giving into the god of self (leaving husband and family and friends behind as casualties), I'm up to my eyeballs in naseua over this brand of spirituality.
Pay attention. This book is a huge bestseller right now and I believe that many people (mostly women) will read it with blindness to the lies being celebrated inside the author's excellent writing and storytelling.

Great Hopes and Bitter Disappointments
I was going to include some updates and stories from my own life over the past couple of weeks, but have decided to come back with that in a separate post. (wait till I tell you about the audio-visual experience God gave Brian and me a couple of days ago!!) In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of my "reviews". Have you read the same book, listened to the same music, have a different opinion? What else are you reading and listening to?
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