Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review :: The Red Letters Project :: Book of Matthew

I got excited when I saw that ViralBloggers had a musical interpretation of the words of Christ from Matthew up for review. Me and music go way back, just like me and the Gospel of Matthew. An artist can open up new ways of seeing familiar things. This happened for me my junior year of college with Apt.Core’s Rhythms of Remembrance; the Lord’s Prayer became the beat I live my life to with the song “Kingdom.” I hoped that The Red Letters Project: Book of Matthew would break me open to something new in the same way.
I was excited enough to save the three-disc project for a six hour road trip to visit some friends and their new baby in Evansville, Indiana. There is a lot of artistic space in Jesus’ words in Matthew. As I inserted disc one into my car CD player, I hoped Mario Canido (the artist behind TRLP) would open up the text of Matthew like a prayer candle in a Byzantine monastery.

I strongly believe that good art is like a good conversation: it happens in a place, in a relationship, with a history, with emotion and spontaneity. TRLP opens with a pop anthem with U2-esque aspirations. The next five tracks imbibe deeply of hardcore gone pop, followed by two rock ballad tracks. TRLP strikes me more as a spoken word performance or a monologue in a black box theatre.
I powered through first disc somewhere in the middle of Indiana cornfields, teeth gritted the whole time. My wife frowned in the passenger seat. Disc one of TRLP does to Jesus’ words in Matthew what the Christian publishing industry all too often does to Jesus’ words in book form: they are processed through the moneymaking mill and come out molded into hollow shells of pop culture forms. (My father-in-law works in injection blow-molding; disc one of TRLP feels like one of the plastic auto parts he makes.)
Only a week or two later (after Okkervil River and smalltown college radio stations got me home from Indiana) did I give a listen to discs two and three. I am glad I did.
I was prepared to do the hard work of eviscerating TRLP in my review, but discs two and three have dictated a different task for me. While an over-produced, pop aesthetic runs consistently through all three discs (I picture three or four guys in a studio with Ibanez guitars and Line 6 amps and gear), many of the songs on discs two and three enter into a worthwhile conversation between the text and the artist’s context.
TRLP handles some difficult phrasing issues (the NLT does not render Jesus a poet) with grace. I appreciate the way “What Sorrow Awaits You” handles the Seven Woes (Mt 23.13-23.36). I’ve never found Jesus’ pronouncements on oath-taking particularly catchy, but after listening to the TRLP rendition, I find myself singing it to myself.
Works like Apt.Core’s Rhythms of Remembrance and TRLP: Book of Matthew revive the long tradition of singing scripture (and they do so well at points). These are not congregational singalongs, but they are tunes to rock out to in the car. And between sing and rocking out, scripture can press itself into our lives, molding us instead of us molding it. 
I’m curious: What other musical or artistic renditions of scripture do you find beautiful, true, formative, life-giving? We need more of these; we need to make more of these. We need scripture to press in on us from all sides.

1 comment:

  1. I have been attempting to chant the Psalms sometimes. I visited a monastery and heard the monks chant once, but really I have no idea what I'm doing. Whatever it is though, it's powerful.


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