Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.


Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.


click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.


Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.


Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.


This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.

Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.

Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 1): The Texture of Good Art

Church people who get to know me are often surprised to discover that I almost never listen to contemporary Christian music. By most measures, I am the perfect raw material for the making of a Christian music fan. I’ve been a believer most of my life; I grew up surrounded by the Christian sub-culture; I work as a pastor, and I’m heavily involved in the music ministry at our church. Besides all this, I love music: I write and record songs, I love to sing, I play multiple instruments, and I was raised on the music that inspired the contemporary Worship Music revolution, bands like The Beatles and U2. Mix all that together and plop in an olive, and you should have one dry martini of a Contemporary Christian Music fan, shaken not stirred.

And yet, truth be told, I am lukewarm when it comes to most contemporary Christian music. There’s one John Mark McMillian album I like (The Medicine). I love Downhere’s Ending is Beginning. There’s an album by an indie Christian hard rock band called tripmeter that I quite like, in large part because I knew some of the band members when I was studying in Saskatchewan. Aside from that, though, there’s not much I listen to: I have all sorts of “Best of Worship” mix CDs that I picked up along the way that haven’t had airtime in my house since ... well ... since ipods replaced CDs as cutting edge music technology.

A while ago, however, I was feeling like I’d fallen into a bit of a musical rut. If my Spotify playlist was vinyl, I’d have long since worn out the grooves on most of my music, and it felt like it was time to discover something new. In my search I stumbled over Bruce Springsteen, an artist who’d been lurking on the edges of my musical horizons throughout my life but had never really found a place in my heart.

I came of age musically in 1987, only two years after Born in the USA had taken the world by storm, but my musical tastes were a strange hybrid of my father’s psychedelic rock predilections—Cream, The Doors, experimental Beatles—mingled with the tousle-maned, falsetto-voiced, guitar-melting aesthetic of the glam rock era that reached its apex just as I was reaching puberty. My first real rock and roll album was Def Leppard’s Hysteria, my favorite band was Van Halen, and to this day, the opening riff of White Lion’s Pride throws me back to the yearning of my early-teen years with such poignancy as to give me emotional whiplash. Because my musical palette had been so refined on virtuoso guitar licks and unabashed innuendo wailed up in the tenor range, the raw energy of Springsteen’s baritone bellowing about brokenness and birthplace and blue collar disappointments always sort of lost me. What’s more, the only song I really associated him with was “Born in the USA,” which, as a Canadian, I’d always mistaken for a naive jingoistic ode to a nation that wasn’t mine.

So I never connected with Springsteen.

But a while back, like I say, I was in a rut, and a book I read about song writing suggested that aspiring songwriters need to listen to the music of master songwriters if they want to hone their craft, and it pointed me to Springsteen as one of the best. I started with Born to Run (an easy first choice), followed by Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska. By the time I’d given Nebraska a third listen, I understood why my songwriting book sent me to The Boss for some schooling.

I proceeded through vast swaths of the Springsteen catalogue, including: Born in the USA, Wrecking Ball, Lucky Town, High Hopes, Human Touch, Greetings from Asbury Park, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and parts of Tunnel of Love. I even read his autobiography over Christmas. After months with his music, I was still not a fan in the fullest sense, but had become a very warm admirer. I doubt I’ll ever sign up unreservedly for the Springsteen fan club, but I’ve come to love his unrestrained rock and roll spirit, the deceptive simplicity of his arrangements, the unbridled energy of that Spector-ish “wall of sound,” and the characters—the busted, broken, born-to-run-with-nowhere-to-go characters—that haunt his best songs.

I’d choose Born to Run over the latest Chris Tomlin effort any day.

Which brings me to the point I was trying to make at the start of this piece. Because my foray into the music of Bruce Springsteen has forced me to come to terms with why I don’t listen to much contemporary Christian music. The music at the FreeWay where I pastor is certainly done in the contemporary style, and we sing our fair share of Tomlin and Redman. Interestingly, too, in that setting I embrace the music enthusiastically, even though none of it makes it to my headphones after church. So my problem is not some pious hang-up about which musical styles belong in church and which don’t. It is deeper than that, I think, and somehow simpler.

It has to do with what I call “the texture” of the songs.

The best of what I heard in Springsteen’s song writing, and certainly the stuff I found most compelling there, had texture to it. The situations he sang about were layered with emotion and complicated by a stark lack of easy answers; the voices he sang in were fraught and pulled and uncertain and clawing their way back up after one more beating down; the places he sang about had a seediness to even their most intense beauty; the Truths he sang of were never easily earned. Inasmuch as life itself is always layered and complicated, mingled with seediness and beauty together, fraught and pulled and uncertain, these songs were rough with the texture of life. And this is true of the music as much as it is of the lyrical content. Though the members of the E Street Band are all masters of their craft, still there is a rawness to their playing that makes their sound greater than the sum of its parts. And Springsteen’s voice—what he has described as a “journeyman’s instrument”—is unpolished and unrefined, giving his vocal performance a texture to match his lyrics.

To hear a good Springsteen song is to sit in the company of a man who has looked intently at life in all its glory and disgrace, and has learned the hard way that the one seldom comes without the other.

This is something that’s missing, I think, in much of today’s contemporary Christian music. In most Christian songs I know, the texture is smoothed out, the rawness glossed over, and the hurt healed before it even has a chance to sting.

This is a cheap shot, I realize, and an old example, but take Matt Redman’s "Blessed Be Your Name," a song we’ve song any number of times in church. The bridge—“You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name”—comes almost directly from the Book of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” This verse is the white-knuckled fist of a man clinging for dear life to a Lord whose face, just now, is obscured by shadow and grief. It is so rough with the grit of life that you can’t run your hand over it without abrasion. Yet in the context of the Redman song, so much of that texture has been rubbed smooth, its desperation polished up and its pain glossed over. I say that knowing that Redman wrote this song in part as a response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, as an effort to offer a song that “grappled with grief,” but even so the song resolves far more smoothly than Job ever dares to. The raw texture of Job’s decision to worship the Lord, “though he slay me,” has been replaced with a relatively easy heart-choice to praise.

You might say: but that’s a lot to ask of a song, to brush up against the texture of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly like that, and still be accessible and uplifting. Yet this is what I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s best work. In the most fraught moments of his music, you’re still hearing something very good you always knew was there, you just never noticed it before.

Of course, “Thunder Road” would make a lousy worship song; and Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” has ministered to the Church all around the world, myself included. I’m not trying to bash it. I’m just trying to explain why, outside of worship settings, most contemporary worship music does not really speak to me.

At the same time, however, I’m also trying to suggest that the best Christian art has texture. Christians, of course, should have one of the most robust Creation Theologies going; and at the heart of any robust theology of Creation is the conviction that, as the Creator’s work, this world is intrinsically good, cherished and loved by him, its seediness and its beauty alike. He doesn’t wish to leave the seedy parts seedy, of course, he is in the redemption business, but neither will he refuse to look at it, or turn his back on it, because of its seediness. Artists motivated by a deep-down Christian understanding of the Creation, would look as intently at the real world as any Springsteen song ever did, and would be just as determined to convey the texture of what they saw there, in whatever their medium.

 A full-fledged theology of Creation would balk at any effort to gloss over the “meanness in this world” with a too-simplistic “Yes Lord! Yes Lord!” It would be determined to tell the truth about the world as it is, even if only to sharpen our thirst for the promise of what will be.

Over the next few months here at terra incognita, I intend to spend some time offering a theological analysis of the music of Bruce Springsteen, suggesting intersections between his work and the truths of the Christian Faith. Springsteen is, by his own description, an x-Catholic, and, though his songs do draw on religious imagery, themes, and musical styles, there is nothing intentionally Christian about his music. However, as with most great artists, there are truths that any believer would recognize as Christian, throbbing at the heart of his work. As we will see, the conviction that the world is worth looking at in all its roughness, and worth singing about honestly, is just one of them.