Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Who says So Cal isn't beautiful?

I took some of these pictures during late December/early January after it would rain consistently for a few days. I'm pretty sure that this is Mt. Baldy. It was cool, because as the rain went away and the clouds cleared, you could see a TON of snow on the mountains. This is the view right from the front of my house in Rancho Cucamonga (about 40 or so miles east of Los Angeles). To think that God creates this stuff just to be creative and for us to enjoy! I was so blown away by how cool the mountains looked, I had to take a few pictures. I don't do that very often, but sometimes the urge just strikes. Who says Southern California isn't beautiful?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Music - Part 2: What gives music meaning?

This is a question that I've been thinking about for a long time, ever since my high school days. I think for many people the answer would be simple - the lyrics. A song has meaning because of the message contained within the words of the song. While that is certainly true, is that the only place? What about instrumental pieces of music, like a large number of jazz and orchestral pieces? Are they devoid of meaning because they don't have words? Do the lyrics communicate the true nature of what a given song intends to be, or is there more that is factored in, such as the relationships between the musicians, the context out of which a song or a genre arises? Why does a silly love song like the Beatle's "I Want to Hold Your Hand," speak so profoundly to a generation of young teenagers when a song with more lyrical depth and creativity may go entirely unnoticed?

Now, I don't want to downplay the power of words, because the spoken word does have incredible creative power. The prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus certainly believed that God's word had the power to create and do powerful things (ever notice that most of the miracles Jesus performs are preceeded by a spoken command of some kind?). But when it comes to music, I find that focusing solely on the text of a song misses a lot of what is meant to be communicated. I'm of the opinion that a significant amount of meaning of a song comes from the interaction of the band members, as well as the listener when he/she experiences a given song.

In the previous blog posting, I talked about how one of the things I love most about music is that it is collaborative. More than one person is required to make music happen in a band, especially in a live setting. This is ultimately the reason why Dave Matthews Band is my favorite band. Not only are they phenomenal musicians, but the way they play together is awesome! Some of my favorite parts of songs are not when Dave is singing, but when they are jamming together, doing solos, or changing the dynamics of the song from what was originally recorded. If you look at the faces of the band members, they are smiling at each other, laughing, looking intently at one another as they move and groove to the music. The notes and tones played by the saxophone and the violin set the tone and emotion of nearly all of their songs. I listen to Dave Matthews Band, as well as numerous other groups, because of the interactions happening between the musicians.

I can say that as a musician, there is a unique kind of relationship that is created when you play with people. Some of my best friends are musicians I have played in bands and worship teams with. There is a unique kind of comraderie that comes out of playing music together. It's a bond in which you gain an ability to relate to each other and enjoy each other's company even if you don't really know the person all that well.

Something that has always struck me about music is that it has the potential to break down barriers between people. The most prominent is racial barriers. Perhaps the earliest form of racial reconcilation during the 20th century in America can be seen in jazz music, as white and black band members play together, and build a sense of brotherhood that would not have been possible in any other circumstances. The mutual love of playing music together takes prominence, rather than focusing on differences in color or culture. I have not heard many songs that attempt to tackle racial reconcilation head on in their lyrics. But the occurrence of it is happening on stage when men and women of mixed races play together. That by itself is something powerful!

Now, lots of people, especially teenagers will use the excuse, "I don't listen to the lyrics, I just listen to the beat or the style." I'll admit, I used this when I was in jr. high and high school. That is a very naive excuse. The problem is, if we listen to a song enough times, we'll know the lyrics by heart whether we chose to listen deliberately or not. I do think lyrics are to be taken seriously, but that is not the give-all-end-all for me. A lot of our ability to choose how much lyrics influence us depends more on our walk with Christ than anything else. I find that if I'm obeying like I'm supposed to be, if I'm in the Word regularly, participating in the life of my church, than I'm usually ok. God's given us the ability to think critically about these things, so let's do so.

Another important place to look for meaning in music is the interaction going on between the performer and the listener. Whether in a live setting or listening to music on your cd/ipod in your own time, there is a distinct type of relationship going on between the two parties. If we're listening to a recording, we're inherently performing some kind of act of interpretation. A lot of that has to do with our own emotions and life situation that we bring when we listen to a piece of music. Songs stay with us because we hear them at a certain time in life, or we hear something in them that catch our attention. What's strange is that what we take from a song might be something that the artist never originally intended - but that interpretive experience is still legitimate.

Let me give an example of this. The Columbine High School massacre occurred during my junior year in high school. I've been in California my whole life, and know no one at Columbine High. Yet for some reason, this horrific event struck a chord with me, particularly in how I thought about my faith. I won't go into the details of how or why, but I needed something to help me connect emotionally to this tragedy. What came to me was a Caedmon's Call song called "Center Aisle." The song is originally about Derek Webb's experience after a funeral where a friend's sister committed suicide. Yet this song spoke to me and helped give words to my emotions regarding the Columbine incident. One song, two entirely different situations, and this song created meaning for both events.

One more thing I want to address with this is the idea that meaning in music is found in the culture a genre arises out of, and therefore speaks to that culture by providing words and a vehicle for emotions. Many of the Beatle's songs, by themselves, are just silly love songs. Yet a song like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" isn't really just talking about two young love birds walking down the street holding hands. It speaks more to a youth culture which, beginning roughly in the post World War II era, began to find itself experiencing a world very different from that of the previous generation. And these differences are so stark, that teenagers started to feel isolation, abandonment, alienation, etc. This continues to this day amongst our teenagers. I took a class called "Theology and Pop Music" towards the end of my studies at Fuller Seminary, and he said this. "The principle role that pop music plays is that the music being performed somehow gives an expression to how young people feel and can’t quite articulate." Some of this expression is found in the lyrics, but a significant portion of it is found more profoundly in the interactions of teenagers as they listen to the music they do, the kinds of families they come from, and any number of other elements.

There's lots more that can be said about all of this, and maybe that's best left up for discussion and dialogue among each other. My hope is that we would seek to ask ourselves how and why our music speaks to us the way it does, and why we find some songs "meaningful" and other less so. Now's your chance to comment. Where do you find meaning in music? Why do certain songs or genres speak to you or matter so much to you? As Christians, how can we learn to discern these various sources of meaning so as to better interact with our world? I'm really interested in people's ideas, so please comment.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Music - Part 1: Reflections on Jazz

Lately I've been watching the Ken Burns: Jazz documentary film collection. It's incredibly fascinating! It tracks the developments of jazz music from it's beginnings in New Orleans in the early 1900's through the swing era, bebop, and beyond. I haven't finished the series yet, but I really enjoy it. Anyone who's a fan of music, American history, and good storytelling would love this series. Put it on your netflix queue, you'll love it!

Needless to say I've been thinking about music because of watching these films. Well, more than usual anyways. I'm almost always got music on the brain in one way or another. Something is almost always playing in my head, whether it's a single song, parts of a concert, particular drum beats that I would like to play, and so on. It's almost impossible for me to not tap my feet or my fingers. If I'm sitting at a table, I'll start tapping my fingers or my hands - I can't help it, it's part of me. Heck, I'm listening to a contemporary jazz band called The Yellowjackets right now as I type.

One of the major things I love about music (jazz in particular) is it's corporate nature. I love the interaction that happens between the musicians when they're performing. It's a kind of communication that doesn't require words, and relies on a different kind of body language than when you're sitting and having dinner with friends and family. It's all about watching each other, reading each other, finding that groove TOGETHER. It's also about encouraging each other, laughing, and creating excitement and passion TOGETHER. I do not believe music is meant to be an individual enterprise. I may be a good drummer, but that only really comes out when I'm playing with other people, and we're challenging each other, encouraging each other, and so on. Early in the Jazz documentary, Wynton Marsalis (famous trumpet player) talks about how he can go play at a club in a particular city, work with a few guys and start playing without much preparation or hashing over details. He says that when they're playing together, "now we can have a conversation. Now we're having a dialogue."

I think these are important lessons that we as Christians need to learn as we live out our faith as the Church. In his book Border Crossings, Rodney Clapp has a chapter in which he explains that jazz can be a source of instruction for our churches. At a jazz club, there's interaction going on between the band and the audience. The audience applauds each soloist as he/she ends her solo section, sometimes shouting out exhortations and encouragement to the player in the midst of the solo. "Go man go!" "Bring it home!" "Yeah, you got it, keep it coming baby!" What if we found ways of applying this form of encouragement in our churches? We all have spiritual gifts that God has given to us. We bring those gifts, talents, sacrifices, and what not to Him in worship when we gather together on Sundays and at various functions throughout the week. When someone from our community is "performing," in his/her natural giftedness, whatever that may be, we need to be shouting "YEAH! That's awesome! Go, go, go!" On the one hand, it's recognizing individual achievement, but on a bigger level it's us coming together as a community and recognizing the beautiful work that God is doing in one of our own. Some people obviously get more attention or notoriety when that happens, unfortunately (let's be honest, it's really rare to hear a bass trombone solo; although, I have heard it once!). But even when that happens, I think we're all able to recognize how we're contributing to the whole project of being God's people coming together in worship, and do so joyfully.

This corporate nature of worship is really why I love music, and being able to play music. I love playing in worship bands, and I love being able to interact with them while we're playing. One of my pet peeves is when I'm trying to look at the other band members, and their faces are buried in the music. Ok, on the one hand it's good that they're tracking with the music, making sure they're playing the right thing. But when I see that, I almost want to shout out, "Hey man, just feel it with me! Work with me! Let's get this in the pocket!" I love being able to watch the other musicians and smile and laugh with them while playing. The best part about it is, IT'S WORSHIP! It pleases God because we're doing it out of our love for Him, in response to the work that He has done in us, and we're bringing our best to the table. I would love for the chance to be able to play in a jazz group sometime in the future, or a rock band, or something. But I'd also be just as happy if I all ever did was play in worship bands for the rest of my life. I just hope that others are encouraged by it, that it helps inspire them to worship, not because I'm all that great of a player (although I do take my craft seriously and have found a level of confidence in it that I never had before), but because I'm just like anyone else bringing their gifts of worship to God amidst a worshipping community.

I would love any comments, questions, or to hear anyone else's ideas about this.

First Blog

As I'm sure is the case with almost everyone when the start blogging, I begin by saying, "This whole blogging thing is pretty new to me, so I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with it." I did some blog posts about a year and half ago for a class of mine, but did not really keep it up after the class was over. I've posted one or two things on myspace back a few years ago, but I stopped using myspace some time since then. I now use facebook quite regularly, but have not made any endeavors to post any notes or topics or particular things other than really basic information about myself.

So why start now? There's a number of reasons why I feel like now would be a good time to begin blogging regularly.

1) For probably the first time in my life, I feel like I have lots of time on my hands. I have always been busy with school and ministry stuff. I finished my master's of divinity degree at Fuller Seminary this last summer, and have since been looking for work as a youth pastor. My life is very much in transition, relying and waiting on God to open things up in my life for me to move forward. I don't know what's next, and I haven't known for some time. In the meantime, I am doing what I can in terms of searching for work responsibly, maintaining a level of involvment at my church, and trying to keep some kind of regular pace to my life.

2) I like to write. While the rigors of writing numerous papers in college and in seminary were often intense, I found that I actually enjoyed the writing process. I found that so long as I paced myself well, was confident in my research and ideas, and could organize everything before I started writing, I would enjoy the work. Obviously I did this with mixed success, some assignments better than others. Yet I knew that with each paper I was reliant upon God's power and influence to write something that would glorify him and accomplish the task for the given class. Having finished my seminary degree, I've needed to find other creative outlets. I have made attempts at writing out ideas and screenplays for movies that I would love to see, but will probably never be made (I have never aspired to be a screenplay writer, and still don't feel like I have a lot of ideas, so this still isn't really a goal of mine). Writing story and screenplay ideas is more of a creative outlet for me rather than for lots of people to see. That being said, blogging would be a similar outlet. Heck, maybe I'll even post excerpts of things I've written on here. We'll see if I am so moved.

3) Reading other people's blog posts have made me want to share my own thoughts and ideas. Everyone has a different take on things in life, so if a number of people I know are doing so, there's no reason why I can't take a crack at it.

So, what can you and I expect to see on this blog thing? Here are some of the ideas I've been thinking about writing on.
1) A series of reflections on music. I'm a musician, so naturally I love to listen to music, play it, watch it, read about it, etc. I often think about music and faith, the idea of being inspired by music, what I value and love about music, where meaning in music is found, and anything related to any of this. I'm thinking of a series of postings, so we'll see how it all comes together.

2) Thoughts on church and culture, living out a Christian life, what God is showing me when I'm reading scripture, so on.

3) My own "apologetic." In other words, why I'm a Christian. Not so much my testimony per se (although that will surely be part of the explanation), but more of a reason why I believe in Jesus and have tried to be faithful over the course of my life. In the sermons the pastor at my church gives he frequently utilizes a lot of apologetics and logical reasoning, giving "proofs" and validity to believing in the Christian faith (i.e. stuff from Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, scientific evidence that points to a creator, etc). I like that stuff, and I find it encouraging and useful, but for me it's not really getting to the core of why I follow Jesus.

4) Maybe some of my book reviews or papers from seminary. At this point, anything else that strikes my fancy to write about will get up on here. I recently heard bishop N.T. Wright speak at Lake Avenue Church a couple of weeks ago, so I might write something about that. Also probably some reflections from my time at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary. I'm also reading Francis Chan's book Crazy Love so maybe I'll post a few ideas from that.

If you're still reading after all this time, good for you! Hopefully you're interested in what I'm thinking of putting on here. I'm a very detail-oriented person, so I tend to write more extensively than shorter. I guess we'll see how this turns out!