Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Voice

I woke up to terrible new today.  My sister and a friend of mine both texted me to tell me that Chris Cornell had died.  I couldn't believe it.  I have been following Chris Cornell to one degree or another for the past 23 years.  I couldn't believe he was dead.  One of the greatest rock and roll voices of my generation was gone.  And in the hours that followed, it was discovered that his death was a a result suicide by hanging.  What a tragedy.  I'm still having trouble accepting it as I write this.

It's interesting how things affect you.  I've never met Chris Cornell personally.  I've seen him in person at four concerts over the past 10 years, but that's it.  It's not like we were close, or that he even knew I existed.  But following him and listening to his music for the past 20+ years makes me feel like I know him.  And as recently as just a couple weeks ago, I was listening to his most recent album and thinking to myself about how much I was looking forward to whatever it would be that he released next.  The man truly had a musical uniqueness that would be difficult or even impossible to duplicate.

That being said, I've tried to duplicate it.  There are several musical artists that I've tried to copy in my own musical pursuits - people that I have tried to emulate in my own singing and guitar playing.  Chris Cornell was number 2 on that list.  The way he sang was perfect.  I tried to sound like him when I sang (although, of course, I paled in comparison).

Equally tragic was that he seemed to have his life together in a way that many of his peers from that same era of music didn't.  Curt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland all died, mostly due to drug and alcohol problems.  Chris Cornell also went through a time of substance abuse, but came out of it.  He seemed to be doing well in his personal life.  He was married and had two children.  Apparently there was more going on than anyone realized.

23 years ago my seventh grade year was coming to a close, which coincided with the grunge music explosion of the early 90's.  Grunge music was all the rage, and anyone who was anyone at my junior high school was growing their hair out and wearing flannel shirts, and I was one of them.  I scooped up the very little money I had made mowing the lawns of neighbors and went to the local music store, intending to purchase my very own piece of grunge culture.  I had heard Pearl Jam and Nirvana before, and was a fan, but thought that purchasing one of their albums would be too risky, as my parents still kept a somewhat short leash on the music I listened to (although, as the third child the restrictions placed upon me weren't as tight as those placed on my sisters), and I thought they wouldn't approve of me owning an album by either of those bands - they were common enough that I think my parents had heard of them by that time, and didn't approve.  I decided to buy an album by a lesser-known band, and I hoped the music would be innocuous enough so as to not draw the criticism of my parents.  The album I choose was "Superunknown" by Soundgarden, on cassette.  It was the first album I had ever purchased with my own money, of my own accord.

I brought the tape home and showed it to my sister Susan, who was also into grunge music, although she was in high school at the time.  Her initial reaction was one of displeasure, as she thought it would be laden with foul language and immoral themes.  Before showing her the tape I had gone through the lyrics to scout them out for any cuss words.  I assured here that I only found two: "D*mn" and "P*ss" (I suppose the latter isn't technically a cuss word, but it was considered to be vulgar back then).  Believe it or not, that seemed to assuage her concerns, and we both listened to it.  A lot.  I would watch MTV at friends' houses (we didn't have cable at my house), just waiting for the video for "Black Hole Sun" to come on, or "Fell on Black Days."  And thus, my journey into grunge and rock and roll music had begun.  (Although, to be honest, I've never considered Soundgarden to be "grunge" music.  It's always had more of an "alternative" or "modern rock" sound to me.  And yes, I am that kind of music snob.)  But it wasn't just the fact that this was the first album I had ever purchased that made "Superunknown" special - it was also a fantastic album.  And the singer was amazing.  There was no one else in the music world like him.  Soundgarden became a regular part of my listening experience.

That tape led to others, which led to even deeper forays into the world of music.  My tastes expanded and deepened over time, as is common for most people.  But that was the start, and that album in particular held a special place for me because of its significance in the development of my musical tastes and expressions.

Soundgarden's next album, "Down on the Upside," came out when I was in high school.  I remember being blown away by their live performances on Saturday Night Live, which happened to be hosted by Jim Carrey, which spawned the "Night at the Roxbury" comedy bits that became so popular.  I remember it in particular for the performance of "Burden in My Hand."  By that time in my life, I don't think I had ever heard a song like that.  "Pretty Noose" was the other song they performed, and was equally mesmerizing to me.  I didn't buy this album, but my sister did, and I copied it onto a tape and listened to it like crazy.  (As an aside, I remember finding the liner notes from her copy of the CD lying around once, and I looked through them at the lyrics of the songs.  Susan had crossed out all the swear words from the liner notes!)  I remember that the drumming on "Burden In My Hand" was a revelation to me.  I had never heard anyone play the drums like that.  And again, that voice was unmatchable.

Not long after "Down on the Upside" was released, Soundgarden broke up.  I was a bit bummed, but certainly not too dismayed, as there was plenty of other music out there to be listened to, and listen I did.  Time went on, and Soundgarden faded from my mind as other music likewise came and went.

Not long after Soundgarden broke up, Chris Cornell started his solo career.  I'll be honest: I wasn't impressed.  I heard a song or two, and that was enough for me.  It seemed like it was too "easy listening" - too much of a departure from the Soundgarden sound.  I knew he was out there, but I wasn't really interested.

But then, in the early 2000's, Chris got together with the band members from Rage Against the Machine to form the band Audioslave.  I was not excited about this at all.  Rage Against the Machine was a band - also from my youth - that was known for its extremely leftist political positions and protest songs against anything with even a veneer of conservativism.  While this didn't surprise me, it bummed me out.  Chris Cornell had always been what I would call an "honest" entertainer.  I once read an interview with him in which he said that during Soundgarden's heyday, MTV had asked him to be a spokesman for their "Rock the Vote" campaign.  Cornell declined, however, and he said it was because MTV seemed to be clearly trying to get young people to vote for Democratic candidates.  He felt that MTV's efforts to get people to vote was actually a front for helping to elect Democrats.  He didn't state his own political leanings in this interview, but I appreciated his honesty and integrity in the matter.  Additionally, Cornell has gone on record that he prefers not to mix political messages in with his music (which makes this song stick out like a sore thumb to me, as though he was forced to record it).  He feels the two are best left separate, and I wholly agree.

And then, here he is teaming up with the guys from Rage Against the Machine - the most militantly leftist band in history (they were banned from Saturday Night Live for attempting to burn an American flag during a live performance on the show).  Hmmm.  I didn't know what to expect.

Then the first single dropped: "Cochise."  I was blown away.  Incredible song.  It has what is probably the second best scream in any song I've ever heard (Cornell owns the top space in this category as well, with the scream in "Drown Me" from "Superunknown.")  You may not think screaming is something to be admired, but believe me, there's an art to it, and Chris Cornell mastered that art.  To my surprise, the first Audiosoave album was a masterpiece.  Every song was great.  Every song was innovative and new.  Every song featured his unmistakable voice.  And none of the songs contained any leftist political commentary, which was an added bonus!

Audioslave produced two more albums, both good, but they didn't match the quality of the first.

Cornell then went on to do more solo stuff, and finally reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, producing the album "King Animal," which was classic Soundgarden.

There are a million other things to describe about Cornell's voice, and I'm certainly no expert, nor his biographer.  Time would fail to talk about Temple of the Dog, his covers of "Billie Jean" or "Nothing Compares 2 U," or his most recent and most brilliant solo work, and the other stuff he has done (like when I accidentally and pleasantly discovered his work on the "Machinegun Preacher" soundtrack). For example, show me another song written in the past 40 years like this one (not only does it sound like it comes from the soundtrack of a 1960's "spaghetti western," but I'd love to know what kind of guitar that opening progression is played on).  Or listen to the soulful, bluesy genius of "Bend in the Road."  Masterpiece.  Find out what I mean about his ability to scream in a way that is musical and adds depth to a song like "Murderer of Blue Skies."

That was another thing about him that was extraordinary: his ability to cross genres.  In the beginning he was mostly the grunge or hard rock guy, but that quickly branched into other genres of music, proving that he was capable of mastering the vocal style of any kind of music he put himself to.

Cornell's voice has always been the signature of Soundgarden, or pretty much anything else he's done.  The guy could sing like no one else you've heard.  His Wikipedia page says that he had a four octave range, and I believe it.  He could sing exceptionally high, and the sound of his voice was so unique.  As time went on and he got older, his voice got better, taking on a more gravely tone and texture.  He lost a bit of his range, but the gravel added a ton of soul.  His voice simply can't be duplicated.  And now we'll never hear his voice again.

As I stated earlier, I was fortunate enough to see him in concert four times - thrice as a solo act, and once with Soundgarden.  I attended each of those concerts with my sister Susan.  See here for her account of the first time we saw him in concert.  We then saw him perform an acoustic set at St. Katherine's University, of all places.  Then we saw Soundgarden perform in support of the release of "King Animal."  The most recent time we saw him was in October of 2015.

The most tragic part of his death is, of course, the lack of any assurance that he knew God.  Most of his lyrics included a lot of deep spiritual finagling, but never anything consistently Christian (although he ironically and accurately and identified the hypocrisy of the so-called "prosperity gospel" in the song "Wooden Jesus").  But as with anyone who dies without any assurance of salvation, there is always hope that somehow, someway, God made himself known to Chris and he put his trust in him before his death.  That's what I hope anyway.

In conclusion, an associate of mine (and fellow Chris Cornell fan), Levi Secord, posted this very well-written and apt reflection on his Facebook page today, which accurately expresses my feelings as well:
I was saddened today when I woke up to the news one of my favorite artists had died, Chris Cornell, apparently from suicide. I enjoyed his hauntingly wonderful voice, but also his honesty in his lyrics. He openly struggled with the world as it was, a fallen and broken world. Much of his lyrics reflected a mourning of the brokenness of this life and the seemingly hopelessness of it all. This resonates with me, for I recognize the world is not as it should be.  
His band mates described his music as "poetic existentialism," and his struggle with finding meaning in the world ultimately lead to nothingness. Though Cornell often struggled with religious themes, especially Christianity in his lyrics, he still could not seem to find truth or hope in it. He was looking for meaning and purpose, but was unable to find it under the sun without God. This is why his lyrics often portrayed a dark outlook with little hope.  
This lack of hope, and his struggle with trying to find ultimate meaning are found in much of his work, especially his later work songs like Show Me How to Live, Like a Stone, Out of Exile, Doesn't Remind Me, Light My Way, No Such Thing as Nothing, Dead Wishes, Higher Truth, Circling, and so many more. Sometimes he even quoted from Scripture (I am the Highway). But in the end, everything remained meaningless and hopeless for him.  
Take these lines from "Before We Disappear" found in his latest album (video below):
"Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast
Taking everything that you ever had
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth" 
There is no hope in these lyrics and they reflect a man who looked at the world honestly through his worldview and thus stared into the abyss. You will get nothing out of life but a grave in the end. I just said the other week that this line sounds familiar to some in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chris was a tortured artist to the core. 
The loss of life in such a tragic way, especially leaving behind a wife and children, is terrible news. But let us reflect on this--there is no hope under the sun if there is no God. If Christianity is a myth, if there is no truth to God becoming man and dying to save man and redeem creation, then we are to be the most pitied people on earth. If Christianity is false, then the grave is all we get. Chris was more honest in his worldview than most are today, and this honesty in the face of hopelessness surely played a role in him taking his own life. So today I mourn his loss, I pray for his family, and I lament that the world is not as it should be. But I do not do so as one without hope, for God is there, he does exist, and he has revealed his love and mercy through Christ Jesus. In the end there is more than just a cold bed in the quiet earth--there is eternity.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Politics and the Pulpit

Last week President Trump signed an executive order on "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."  This order, among other things, states that the Trump Administration will not enforce the Johnson Amendment that forbids non-profit organizations from endorsing political parties and candidates.  In short, churches and pastors now have the legal freedom to endorse a political candidate in local, state, and national elections (although this Order does not guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for doing so in the future - see here).  Joe Carter has written a very helpful piece that explains in more detail what is accomplished by this Executive Order.

Although this Order gives churches and pastors the freedom to become more visibly and publicly involved in the process of political campaigns, as a pastor, I have no intention of endorsing a political candidate or backing a particular party as part of my ministry, and nor will Riverview Baptist Church do so as a non-profit entity.  There are at least three very clear reasons why:

1. It might be a stumbling block.
We live in a polarized political world where most people are clearly on one side of an issue or the other, and support either this candidate or the other, and never between the two shall meet.  In other words, everyone has their opinion and is sticking to it - no matter what.  It would seem unwise to me, then, when in the position to be a minister of the gospel, that I would cloud that message with an endorsement of a political candidate.  Such an endorsement may hinder someone who disagrees with my candidate of preference from hearing the message that I really want to declare: the gospel.  In other words, if I endorse a republican candidate from the pulpit, it's going to be hard for democrats to hear the gospel, and vice versa.  If there will be a stumbling block in front of a person, it will be the word of God, not the pastor's political persuasions.  I don't want to put any stumbling block of my own creation that does not come from the Bible in front of a person who needs to hear the greatest news ever given.  For this reason, I will gladly sacrifice my right to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.

2. The marriage between the church and politics has largely left the church weak and ineffective.
In my opinion, much of the present weakness in the American church is the result of its close association with political parties.  Far too many Christians have put their hope in the government for their salvation, believing that elected officials have the power to enact biblical change.  This is not true, nor is it the role that God intends for government to perform.  Additionally, far too many Christians have abdicated the work that the Bible clearly calls the church to accomplish, and has left that work up to the government.  The church has given up much of its authority to the government, and has looked to government programs to achieve change instead of the gospel, leaving it weak and ineffective.  The results of this marriage have been tragic.  Since the church has abdicated its work to the government, many of America's 300,000+ protestant churches have become entertainment centers that focus on life-enhancement rather than the gospel.  The endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit would only further this weakness.

3. The church is a divine entity created by God - not a political party. 
The church is distinct from all other institutions in the history of the world.  We are the called-out-ones; the disparate band of sinners redeemed by a great Savior.  We come from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, political persuasions, and every other qualifier imaginable.  We are to partner with God in his mission to bring the gospel to every corner of the earth.  In this process we are to call all people to repentance and faith - from the lowliest peasant to the highest king or president.  We are to call all politicians and political parties to repentance - not to get into bed with the party we prefer and call the other one to repentance.  To endorse a candidate or party would muddy the waters of knowing what the church is and its purpose in the world.

All of this being said, the church is still bound by God to address topics and issues that are often political in nature in our culture.  We will still talk about moral issues, and we will do our best to speak clearly where the Bible speaks clearly.  The influence of the gospel permeates all areas of life - including our engagement with politics.  But make no mistake: we don't speak about these issues and take the stances we do because of an allegiance to a political party, but to God.  We are ambassadors of God's kingdom, not ambassadors for the kingdoms of the democrat and republican parties.  We will endorse the King of kings, and no one else.

As Christians who follow King Jesus, we understand that there are times when we may be called to sacrifice our earthly rights for the sake of the gospel.  I, for one, feel that sacrificing the right to endorse a political candidate for the sake of the gospel is a good one to make.

Monday, May 1, 2017


I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I've never been called "hip" or "trendy."  But apparently I am.  And so is Riverview Baptist Church.  According to a recent Gallup survey, preaching that is based on the Bible is the hottest trend in American churches right now.  That is, it has apparently become popular for preachers to base their sermons on the Bible, and people are responding to it by flocking to churches with biblical preaching.

At Riverview we are committed to preaching and teaching the Bible for the simple reason that is the only and best thing worth preaching and teaching.  We believe that the Bible is God's word - it is a direct message from God to us (just let that sink in for a minute), and that it is completely true in all its parts and in everything that it says.  It is inspired by God himself through human authors, and it is sufficient in all areas it addresses (in other words, it is enough to give us all the direction, guidance, and wisdom in life that we will need).  Put simply, we at Riverview hold the Bible in high regard.  And since we do, we find that it is the best and most worthy object of our time and attention.  All other things that we might speak about and study pale in comparison to the Bible.

If the Bible is indeed all of these things - and it is - then it only makes sense that we would devote ourselves to it.  To this extent, the fact that biblical preaching is a current trend is a good thing.  The more people hear the word of God preached faithfully, the better.  But trends aren't necessarily all good.  In fact, following the trends of the day has been, in my opinion, the thorn in the church's side for several decades now.

What does it say about the spiritual health of the American Church that biblical preaching is trending?  Nothing good, as far as I can tell.  After all, trends come and go.  For decades many American churches have put the Bible on the shelf in favor of a flashy stage production, catchy music, a hip coffee bar, or even having people dressed up as Disney characters during services.  Basically, many churches have attempted to draw people to their churches with anything but the Bible - whatever appeals to the masses is what they do to draw people in.  And now that the Bible has become what the people want, it is quite possible that churches will jump on board that trend for as long as it lasts, or until people get bored with the Bible and want to be entertained again.  To this extent, I hope that many preachers who simply follow trends won't follow this one.  We don't need preachers going to the Bible because they want to attract people.  Instead, we need preachers who will go to the Bible because it is the authoritative word of God, and it is the only and best thing that demands our attention.

Many churches have adapted their ecclesiology and ministry philosophy for the purpose of achieving a certain result.  In other words, what do we have to do fill the pews?  What do we have to do to bring up our numbers?  But this is a pragmatic and unbiblical way of determining how we should conduct our churches.  Instead, our question should be: what would God have us do?  Our focus should be obedience, not outcomes or results.  If God says to preach the Bible in season and out of season, that is what we should do, regardless of the results, and regardless of who comes or who does not.  I'm glad that biblical preaching is trending right now, but I hope that people don't jump on the biblical preaching bandwagon just to get more people in the door.  Rather, we should be on this bandwagon - and stay on it - because that's what God says to do.

At Riverview, faithful men of God have been preaching his word verse by verse, line by line, for as long as I can remember, and we intend to carry on that legacy.  I was once approached by a visitor to our church after preaching a sermon and they said to me, "It is so refreshing to hear a sermon that is based on the word of God, telling us what God says."  Although I was honored by their compliment, my first thought was, "What else is there to preach?"  Why would you want to hear from a fallible, imperfect man when you could hear from the God of the universe?  I certainly don't have any of my own thoughts or ideas that are worth talking about.  My wisdom is nothing compared to God's.  Why would I preach anything but the Bible?  Everything else pales in comparison!

It is my hope that we will be a church that is faithful to dedicating ourselves to receiving the word of God and declaring it with boldness, in season and out of season.  We know that God's word never returns void - it accomplishes all its purposes (Isaiah 55.11).  May God give us the grace to speak it boldly until he comes.