The Enduring Value of Great Art

Tonight we have our second Pub Theology gathering at The Local in Saratoga Springs. If you are in the Capital District, we’d love for you to join us from 7:30-9:00pm. Our discussion topic this evening will be, “Why should and how can Christians take art seriously?”

As I was doing a little prep for our conversation tonight, I came across an article by R.C. Sproul. The paragraphs below stuck out to me. He had been writing about about the manifold depth in Rembrandt’s painting of Jeremiah, before getting to the value of truly great music. His point is that great art (not just music) has staying-power, and flat, static art quickly fades out of memory:

The substance, depth, and thought behind the works of the masters gave their art an enduring value that far transcends the cheap, the boring, and the superficial.

The same can be said of the music of the great musicians. Does Mozart’s music ever go out of style? Does Chopin’s music ever get boring? Does Handel’s Messiah still move us when we hear the “Hallelujah Chorus”? Watch the national music charts each week as they record the most popular songs across the country. The songs rise and eventually fall in a matter of a few weeks. What was Number One this week may not be in the Top Forty six weeks later. Many of today’s songs are there for a moment and then they are gone. Great art, on the other hand, has the ability to persevere through time.

Read “The Christian and Art” (parts 1, 2, and 3) by Sproul.


Loved by J.J. Heller Review

A guest post by Carly Pruch

J.J. Heller releases her newest studio album today entitled Loved. On the whole, Loved has the theme of perseverance through suffering and heartache by believing and trusting in the truth of Jesus. Although only one song actually mentions Jesus by name, it’s clear her trust in him is what has and will continue to carry her through life. Because all of us have suffered or will suffer in some measure, I think any listener will connect with this album at one point or another in their life. I know that after listening to Loved, I found myself praying for friends I know who are currently suffering.  

Style-wise, Heller’s characteristic smooth and soothing voice hits the lower and higher ranges. Content-wise, the lyrics are honest and anything but shallow. In short, the album is a must have for any Heller fan. Let me highlight a few song that particularly stood out.

Track 9, “Who You Are,” in my opinion, is the best song on the album. A song about suffering, different stories converge and the ultimate answer is, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I know who you are.”  It reminds us that God is our Father, and he loves more deeply and fully than any parent will ever know. Even he he knows what it’s like “to lose a Child.” We all need to be reminded of this when things go a way we don’t particular like, or understand.  We need to remember that God is our Father and we can know and trust Him.

“Create in Me,” (track 5) shows us our need for a Redeemer, not just a rescuer. “I don’t want to be rescued,” Heller sings, “I want to be redeemed.” Oh amen! We don’t just need a rescuer, we need someone to come and make us new. “Build something beautiful, don’t leave until you do, I’m tired of the old routine, make me new.” I can see someone who doesn’t know Christ listening to this and saying, “Yes, I want that!”

Each song is its own story, and I could go on and on about how every one could help reinforce God’s truth in our lives during certain times of life. But I won’t–I’ll let you go buy Loved and listen to it for yourself!

Win a FREE Copy!

To make listening easier, I (James) will be giving away a copy of Heller’s new albumHere’s the three ways you can enter. Do one. Do them all. The more entries, the better chance you have to win. All entries due by Tuesday, March 19.

  1. Comment on this post below, telling me why you’d like this book. Also, mention any of the following “entries” you chose.
  2. Subscribe to Beneath the Cross.
  3. Follow me on Twitter.
  4. Subscribe to my wife’s blog, In the Meantime.
  5. Follow my wife on Twitter.
  6. Tweet this blog post or post to Facebook.

(If you already subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter, and my wife’s blog or her Twitter, mention that in your comment as well, and I’ll count it!)

Buy the album

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the above product for free in hope that I would give it an honest review. My wife, Carly, did so for me in this case. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Jesus is Not Our Boyfriend

I have a love-hate relationship with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). I love it because it desires to make music for Jesus. I hate it because it is often shallower than the kiddie pool. Unfortunately, its shallowness often overwhelms and leaves me longing for more.

I always hesitate to write about something I know little about. I am not a music expert or critic, and I cannot play guitar like every other American male age 18-29. I theologize and preach and shepherd, so I am treading deep water. Nevertheless, I generally like music, and it does not take a music professor to realize that Christian music needs nothing less than a modern reformation. Read a sample of the lyrics to the currently popular song “Hold Me” by Jamie Grace:

I’ve had a long day, I just wanna relax
Don’t have time for my friends, no time to chit chat
Problems at my job, wonderin’ what to do
I know I should be working but I’m thinking of you and

Just when I feel this crazy world is gonna bring me down
That’s when your smile comes around

Oh, I love the way you hold me, by my side you’ll always be
You take each and every day, make it special in some way
I love the way you hold me, in your arms I’ll always be
You take each and every day, make it special in some way

If you didn’t hear these lyrics on a Christian station, you’d probably guess the song is about the singer’s boyfriend. Never mind the teeny-bop melody. There’s not mention of human brokenness and the desperate need for a Redeemer. There’s not a hint of gospel. Instead, Jesus is a boyfriend who shows up smiling during a bad day at work.

The intention of the writer is good. The point is that Jesus is there for us. He takes care of us. If we have Jesus, we have enough. The problem is not the intention. But music (and all art, including writing) goes beyond intention, doesn’t it? Intention matters, but quality matters as well, and Christians should strive for the best quality because God did not spare quality when he created. This song is a microcosm of Christian music today. Don’t get me wrong: there are many good Christian songs, but far too often the songs I hear settle for corny Bieber-inspired lines that communicate nothing of the vast depth of God’s grace in the gospel.

Scores of words have been written about whether  “Christian” music is good or bad or why there is even a separate sub-culture of “Christian” things at-large. That’s not why I’m writing. I simply want Christians–musicians in particular–to embrace the long and splendid history of authentically transparent and objectively beautiful music in the church.

Written in 1759, the famous hymn “Come Ye Sinners” by Joseph Hart reminds us that Jesus is there for us; he takes care of us; and if we have Jesus, we have enough. Hart even uses the analogy of being held by Jesus, but he does it without making it seem like he is our cosmic, feathered-hair boyfriend. Hart writes:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O, there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Here we find gospel. Here we find a strong, yet compassionate Redeemer who beckons: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Will Christian artists go back to songs like these before they attempt to go forward? Will they tap into the richness of music that belongs to our 2,000-year-old community of saints? Will they grasp for and wrestle with language in order to winsomely and articulately communicate the gospel of grace?

I hope they do. The gospel is at stake–even on Christian airwaves.


Hear the Music, Don’t Learn the Steps

Part 5 in a 10 part series. View series intro and index.

If you are anything like me (let’s hope not), your bent is to read the Bible to get information. You want to mine the peaks and valleys of Scripture for intellectual ascent, to out-wit, out-smart, or out-argue someone else in a theological debate. You want information because filling your brain makes you feel enlightened, special, smart, or just plain better than others.

If you aren’t like me, I’m willing to be you are still a bit like me (too bad) in that you read the Bible for information, yet in a different way–it just might not be for theological prowess. Instead, you might have been raised on the American proverb, “Knowledge is power,” and “power” for you is that little nudge to initiate your self-help gears.  You bring that perspective to your devotional times, and as long as you find that little piece of history to remember or a short verse to memorize, your conscience will be appeased, at least until tomorrow morning.

If you read the Bible simply for information, you will learn the dance steps of Christianity. Anyone can learn dance steps. Even uncoordinated white men can learn the Macarena or the Electric Slide if a pretty girl invites them to the dance floor. It is much harder (impossible?) to hear the music as the writer and composer would without a complete internal transformation.

Isn’t that what we do when it comes to devotions? We look for dance steps. We simply want to know where our feet go. We search for a rule to follow or a sin to avoid. We want to know when to raise our hands in church, when to say “Amen,” and how to talk like church-folk. Sadly, this doesn’t only happen during devotions. At Sunday services, small groups, or Friday night hang-outs, people in the church are just looking for dance steps. Many Christians (and those who think they are) just want to know where their foot goes next.

Dance steps will get you by for a song or two. If you know the steps, you might even be able to fool your dance partner that you know what you are doing. But sooner or later a song will play that doesn’t have programmed moves. You will need to hear the music to show that you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, there are millions of people in America who can do the dance of Christianity, and reading the Bible for information–which is what you probably learned to do growing up–will only teach you steps. You must hear the music.

The Bible teaches this, just not in the same vocabulary.  The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:12-13).

That goes way deeper than simple dance steps.

Dance steps are akin to phony, external religion, but God wants us to hear the music. Dance steps make Christianity about me. Hearing the music makes it about God. Dance steps are a short cut that yield no eternal reward. Hearing the music means we enter into the story of God’s redemptive work and relish the fact that he has graciously broken into our lives to save us from the sin and brokenness we would not otherwise be able to overcome.

This is were true joy lies. Thus the Bible is meant for your spiritual transformation, not mere transfer of information.

Obviously no one can “hear the music of the gospel” unless the Spirit causes them to be born again (John 3:1-8). With that said, we still have responsibility for our spiritual lives. As I wrote last time, whether Christian or not, our greatest need is the gospel. Scriptures main point is to be “a speaker amplifying the music of the gospel.”[1] Here are some questions to help us hear the music when reading Scripture.

  • What is the big idea of this passage?
  • How does this passage fit into the big story of God’s redemptive work throughout the Bible?
  • How does this passage point to Christ (either implicitly or explicitly)?
  • What idols and counterfeit gods does this passage expose?
  • In what ways does this passage expose my unbelief in the gospel?
Answering these questions will not always be easy, but the process will always be worth it. In the end, only by God’s grace, you will be more gospel-sensitive, and less externally religious.

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Keith Johnson for the analogy of “hearing the music of the gospel.” Read his article for a much fuller and more helpful version of what I have written.


The Keith Green Story

Keith Green died 29 years ago today. He was 28 years old.  Here is an hour-long video about his life.