Evan Thomas Way: The Full Interview

Way back in August 2016, I had a long chat with Evan Thomas Way, music pastor at Door of Hope in Portland and frontman of the acclaimed indie band The Parson Red Heads. Last summer, I published a profile based on that conversation at Mockingbird. If you’re new to Evan’s work, head there first. But if you want more, here follows the entire interview with Evan. As someone who cares deeply about music in the church, and who leads music regularly, I found Evan’s approach both refreshingly realistic and healthy. Rereading the conversation before posting it encouraged me again, so I hope it benefits you too.

Which album do you send people to, or that you think is the best representative of The Parson Red Heads?

I don't know, because I feel like they are all representative of specific times, whether it be different versions of the band, or where we were at in life, or what we were listening to.

The band includes you and your wife?

Yeah, pretty much. My wife and I are the founding members, and we've gone through lots of different changes. Some of the [members] have been through it for the most part, for almost the whole time. But it's hard to say what represents us most, 'cause I feel like every album is fairly different and representative of a specific...  you know little documents, so I don't know. That's a hard question.

I feel like Yearling is a special album, in the same way that I describe Wesley Randolph Eader's latest album. Somehow we ended up with this one collection of songs that were really strong as songs. Song for song, they were probably the best. You could play them just on an acoustic and they would still [hold up]. As songwriter songs, maybe it's the strongest in that way. And we spent a lot of time working on it, really all over the country, recording it at different studios. So it's this really special... probably it will go down in history for us as the most special album to make, maybe like the strongest, most cohesive collection of songs. But then at the same time, I don't know if it really represents where we are now, so it's hard to say.

At any stage of one's art it is hard to really narrow it down and say, "That's me!"

Yeah.

How long have you been making music?

Well, Parson's have been playing... I've been doing music in this form for 12 years, I had some bands before then, but they weren't very good. Laughs. So we'll say 12. 12 years.

Anything you've learned...?

I'm sure I've learned a ton! Laughs.

But that you'd look back at on and say, "Man, I wish I had known that." Or, "I'm glad I learned that over time."

Yeah, all sorts of things. You can't help but learn about songwriting, about being a musician, about playing with other people, and just about how to treat other people by being in a band and touring. Especially because we started the band and had been playing for a little under a year before we moved to L.A. When we moved to L.A. we were like, taking it really seriously, and it was good to do. But I was certainly... like, I would write songs that I was pretty extreme about. I was writing everything and I was telling everybody what to play.

Maintaining control.

Yeah, you know. Not to justify it, but I had these ideas, like, “This is the guitar part that I thought of for this thing. This is how I hear it in my head, so I'm going to tell people what to do.” And, in retrospect after growing up and learning more, I don't think that's the best way to be in a band. Laughs. Maybe there are some songwriters who are talented enough that it's the best way to do it. But as we've gone on, I've realised that even if people are writing a part that maybe I thought of in my head, [theirs is] almost always better. When somebody can invest and come up with their own contribution to the song, it's going to make the song more dynamic, and it's going to represent the band as a whole better rather than the two dimensional version of what the song would have been if I would have written everything.

It's a band, not an artist, so it should reflect everyone.

So once I learned that – and that was a hard lesson to learn! – I feel like we got better. Laughs. But yeah, it's hard to sum up everything that you've learned, because it covers so many different categories.

It's interesting hearing that, and then watching you play with your team at church. How much more that is important in a church context, where if you're the one controlling everything!

I'm sure that there are people in my position at a church [who] control everything, that's pretty common. But that's not how I like to do things. No, it's certainly...

But even you think of a band making music, and how members are bringing things they've invested into that song... If you are talking about the church, that's a picture of the church itself!

Yeah. It seems illogical now!  [But] at the time, I don't know... I just wasn't thinking that way. [Now] it just makes sense. Not only is someone going to care more about what they play, if it's something that they've came up with, they are going to play it better. Laughs. There's going to be more character and... it's going to be better if they've thought it up. Because everyone has their own unique way of doing things. If they replicate something that I've shown them how to play, it's just not going to be as good, or as interesting.

It brings more to the table, and when you listen to a good record, or a song, it unfolds itself more the more you listen to it. If other people are bringing stuff to it, it's just going to add to that richness.

I was reading Bob Dylan's memoir and realised how much of his early career was spent just playing other people's music that he loved. Same thing with The Beatles early music. They just covered people.

Yeah! That was indicative of the 60s though, everybody was doing it. It was kind of weird. There would be like four versions of the same song on the radio, and they'd all just be playing at once. “May the best band win!” You know?

Did you start out as songwriter?

Yeah, I just pretty much jumped right in, wanting to be in a band that did our own songs. [But] I definitely learned the value of covers. Parson's have made it a habit of knowing some covers, because they are fun to do. For the past 6 years, on every New Year's Eve, we do a concert where we perform an album from beginning to end, so we learn a band's album that way.

Wow! What's your favourite?

We did the Weezer's Blue Album. You don't know Weezer? Man, Canada! So that was probably the most fun. But we did The Beatles “Hard Day's Night.” We did Tom Petty's “Wildflowers”. We just recently did Fleetwood Mac's “Rumours”, we did Stardust this last year. So that's been so interesting – how much it informs and teaches you. Like one time in L.A. we were the house band for a Beach Boys tribute show. All sorts of different vocalist from around town were singing and we were just the band and did harmonies. We had to learn like 20 something Beach Boy songs and all the harmonies. We were learning harmonies off sheet music, choir style.

And that was so educational! We grew so much as musicians having to do that. And my appreciation for what the Beach Boys do... Because it's hard to write something that's hard for you to do. Like, I would never write a song that I can't play. Some people do. They hear something, and it's really hard for them to play, and eventually they get it. I'm not wired that way. I don't write something that's hard for me to do. So being forced to learn something that's hard for me to do just makes me grow that much more as a musician.

Did you watch Love & Mercy?

I have not.

That film really helped me appreciate them. It also made me appreciate the amount of personal suffering such brilliance brought Brian Wilson.

Yeah, I've got to see it. All my Beach Boys fanatic friends saw it, and it passed. They all approved of it. I have some friends who are historian level [Beach Boy fans], so if they approve it, it must be good.

 Apparently they found the original recordings of the studio sessions and replicated them exactly.

I guess even the scenes in the studio were replicated off photos and footage, so everything was laid out the same, the microphones were all in the right places.

 And it's fun to watch! Especially seeming them create these ideas together.

Yeah, I gotta see it.

 I find it cool that you and Wesley are both making music that's not explicitly Christian, along with Gospel music, and having that combination.  Are there things that you keep in mind when you are wearing those different hats?

Yeah, I guess so. For me, writing gospel music and... worship music?

Church music?

Yeah, church music. That's a good way to put it. It was something I didn't do until I started working with the church. And started working with the church, and Josh, our lead pastor, writes a lot of the songs that we do. and there were lot of other songwriters writing songs for the church. And he encouraged me, like, "You write good songs. You should try writing some worship songs. Might as well try it." And so that's kinda when I kinda started trying my hand at it. And it takes me... it's a lot harder to write a good worship song.

Why's that?

Because there's a lot more.... You can't do whatever you want. Laughs. It's gotta be theologically sound, it's gotta be clear. In my opinion, this is what it takes. It has to be easy to sing along with. There's just all this other stuff. Whereas when you are writing a song, it doesn't have to make sense, really. And I take it a lot more seriously. I'm a lot more critical. I'm like, “Is this all true? Is this all worth singing, will people get it?” So it just takes a lot longer. I mean, I've only written church songs in the context that this is for our church, for this church specifically. So for everything on that record, I wasn't just writing Christian songs. I was like writing a bunch of songs to be congregational worship songs

For your church.

For my church, yeah.

For people that you know!

Laughs. And I was a little weirded out making a record, because I wrote [all the songs] not thinking to do a record, I was like, “I don't know if I wanted to.” It felt weird. I wrote these songs to be sung in a worship service. Is their function to be recorded, and put on a CD, and be monetised, and [played] in the car? Is that what they are for? Is that right? Or is their purpose to be sung? And I still think about that some times. I realise that there are people who worship to them outside of the confluence of church. And that's fine, if you can put it in your car and drive and you're worshiping, and it helps you, that's good.

Once I decided to do it, working with the guy I work with, Danny (who did Wesley's record too), [he] helped me kind of realise that the record is an opportunity not just to recreate what [I] do on Sunday, but these songs can be done differently on the record than what [I] do at church. Like, they can still be worshipful, but they don't have to be a congregational worship song. So we changed the arrangements and made them a little more experimental.

More spacious.

Yeah, which helped me justify doing the album more.

In the sense that you were making something that people can enjoy as art?

Yes.

It is worship, but you are not singing it in your congregation.

Right. So yeah, I mean, that is very different from what I do for Parsons, in that it's a different function, if you think about music as functions, I think about the songs I write for church as serving a very specific purpose, whereas the songs I write for Parsons can serve all sorts of different purposes I guess, depending on the song. Over the years I've found my songs for Parsons, whether I try or want to or not, have more clearly expressed my worldview, you know? Laughs. The more I've grown as a Christian and [have] taken following Jesus seriously, the more I can't help it. I'm not thinking about it when I'm writing lyrics, but its coming through somehow. Because more and more, every release I'll have questions asked by interviewers, "Are these sons about... God... like?" When we first started no one would every ask me that about any of my songs. It just [has] kind of sneaked in, like, " I guess it is, yeah." Laughs.

In what ways do they sneak in? I listen and find it very joy filled. You're reckoning with these things and realising there is something greater going on.

I think it really started happing with the last record, with the Orb Weaver record. Just on certain lyrics, [critics] were picking it up much more quickly then I thought they would be. Laughs.

When you're writing music for the church you're very specific. It almost sounds like you're hearing a need in the congregation.

I'm seeing the need In the church in general, for good worship songs. Not to offend anyone, but I feel like there is a lot of bad church music out there being done by churches. So I see a need because I know there are a lot of people like myself who hear these songs and are like, "This is terrible." And they're conflicted because they want to be good worshippers. Certainly you don't want to go to a church and feel like... I mean I've done it so many times, where you hate... you just don't like the songs, but that's not your job. You're not there to please yourself or be entertained, so then you're trying. You want to worship God well, and humbly, but you're like, "Man, I can't help it, this song is terrible." Chuckles. That conflict! So I see a need for good worship songs [that] I think are pleasing artistically. But also I find that a lot of modern worship songs are devoid of all actual content. Like, they are Christian lingo just repeated over and over again that just means nothing. So I see a need for that in the church in general.

So, the immediate use is for our church. And then the nice thing is that through Deeper Well, through any reach that we have, it is able to echo out [into] other churches. Whenever I hear about another church doing some Deeper Well songs I'm, like, so happy. I love that people are finding that music and using it in their congregation and that it's growing from there.

We use some of Wesley's stuff, and it's great. We do a lot of Indelible Grace and Sovereign Grace songs, and there is still so much from them to draw from. But the more I listen to Deeper Well, the more I want to introduce your songs.

When you’re making the art that is specifically Gospel focused, especially that made in context for the church, you know that it explicitly includes truth. So you trust that its going forth and being used. Is there a sense that you wonder how if your other music is having any impact? Obviously you can trust God...

I guess I don't worry about it too much, because there is not much I can do about it. I think that songs that are outside of [the church] context sometimes can be more powerful. They certainly can communicate to people who are... I mean, I would love it if Deeper Well...

One idea was if the records sound great, if the songs are good, [then] even if the content is explicitly Jesus content, maybe people outside of the church would gravitate towards the music anyways, and [it could] sneak in there. [But} I think that outside of maybe Liz Vice's record, that's probably not happened, I mean for various reasons. When a black woman is singing traditionally sounding gospel music a lot of people let that slide sooner then they would a bearded man singing about Jesus. Chuckles.

I was talking to her about it yesterday, and I was surprised at the types of venues that invite her.

Yeah, I think she can get away with it, and it's great. [But] the idea that my record being heard by someone who is not a Christian and being like, "I love it anyway!" like... it's a little ridiculous. But, are they going to listen to the Parson's records where the messages [aren't] explicit but certainly [have a] worldview engrained in them that can, I don't know, soften their hearts? I think that's totally possible.

Especially because music can get under your skin and in your head.

Yeah. So I think it can still be used for good. I think it's [also] a vehicle to express other ideas, and like, you know, more personal introspective about life in general. I don't think that's the place where Gospel music [can]...

So even though the worship music talks about life, the other stuff talks about it in a broader sense, in ways that the other stuff can't?

Yeah. More introspective, I guess.

At my church, when we write gospel music our pastors give it a read through to make sure that what is being taught is accurate. And you mention something similar, in trying to be careful. Do you do something similar when you write something that's not explicitly Christian? Because you are still conveying a message.

Not really. I guess I trust myself enough. And I feel like if I were to do that, would I expect other artist attending the church [do to the same]? Would I expect Wesley to bring his songs [to me]?

Would you expect a coffee roaster to do something similar with their coffee?

Yeah. [You] have to exercise accountability, and you have to be able to have the freedom of expression to express doubt, or pain, and sing from different perspectives. I certainly have written songs that, when I take a step back, I have to admit that, "Man, I wrote that from the perspective of maybe a character who is not where I am at." And I have to be okay with that. You have to take that step of bravery I guess. That [perspective] might get associated with me, but I think it's a valuable story to tell anyway.

How did you get into the worship pastor position at Door of Hope?

Laughs. By accident, I guess. We moved up here, and I was working as a website project manager from home, and we were sort of looking for churches. Like I was telling [you earlier], I was struggling with going to churches and just really not responding to the music. In a way that wasn't healthy, that was very selfish.

In the sense that you wanted to be pleased?

Yeah, like I'd show up ready to judge the music. The music would happen. I would judge the music. [I was] completely shut off from the experience, just not good. It was not good.

It's so easy as an artist to do that.

Oh yeah! And so, after a while of looking for churches [and] that being the thing over and over again, both my wife and I were super convicted about it. [We] started realising that we are not... everyone else is just worshiping and we are just being so self-righteous and treating it like we are supposed to be entertained. And so we really had to take a step back and just choose to put that aside and be like, "We will find a church and music will not be a factor. Because it's such a  problem we can't actually let that be a factor in our decision anymore. So whatever the music is, if we find a church that has solid teaching, that were compelled by, that we think is healthy, we just need to go. We need to commit to a church, and we need to lay that down. Music just needs to not be a thing."

And so we did that and a little while later we found Door of Hope and it was just God rewarding some amount of faithfulness and repentance. Because when we walked in, I was like, "Oh, the music is good. But it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if the music is good!" And then the message was great, and halfway though the sermon I leaned over to Brette and was like, "We should go here." And so we never stopped going.

And through committing to the church a couple weeks later we introduced ourselves to Josh, and Josh, being the way he is – it's hard to describe – he was like, "Oh you guys are musicians, what's the name of your band?" And we told him and the next week he comes up he's like, "I checked out your band, it's really good." He's just really immediate and informal. He's like, "It's really good, do you want to do a special song sometimes? Like special music for a service, like do a song?" We're like, "Sure." He's like, "Okay, cool. Next week."

Alright! So then next week Brette and I did a song, and after the service he was like, "That was awesome. Do you want to do worship with me sometime, like co-lead?  Okay, cool, next week we will do it."

Ah, alright! After that, he was like, "That's great!" and we'd get lunch or coffee occasionally. And through co-leading, sometimes I started seeing how... because at this point it was just him and two guys working for the church. He was preaching every week. He was the only pastor, he was doing all the music, coordinating the band to whatever extent he could. He was just doing a lot. And my Dad's a pastor, and so I know what it looks like for a pastor to do more then he should, plus [Josh is] just like, not organised. So I got the inside view of, “Woah, he's sending out an email to people like on Saturday night, telling them that they're going to play worship with him tomorrow. Like, that's not going to work. That not sustainable. I'm surprised it's lasted this long.” And I was working at home at the time, a computer job, so I offered; "Josh, can I just make a monthly schedule? I'll handle scheduling. Give me the musicians. I'm an organised person. It will take no time. I've got time at home. Give me their emails, I'll make a schedule every month, that way you don't' have to be doing this ridiculous scramble every Saturday night."

He's like, "Alright.” So I started doing that, and co-leading more regularly, and after doing that for a few months he finally offered me a job. And I didn't really want the job.

No?

Not really. I didn't think that I'd work for a church, I was comfortable doing what I was doing; we were able to tour whenever we wanted, doing what I was doing. And so when he offered me the job it took me a while to say yes. I was so comfortable. "Yeah, the job I have now is stressful and giving me ulcers, but we can tour. I know what it is." The known vs. the unknown. And I called my dad and I was like, "Dad, should I take this job?" My dad's a pastor and I was half expecting him to say, "Of course, work for a church!" He was like, "Well, I don't know. The band's important, and working in ministry is hard. If you're not called to do it it will destroy you."

Well, alright, I'll take that into consideration! But after praying about it and my wife really calling out my... I was holding on to the comfort of like, "This job pays good, we can tour whenever." [But in the end], if you have an opportunity to do music for church, for a job, just do it. And I did it.

That's an amazing story! And how, over the years of doing that, how have you changed?

I've probably changed completely. Laughs. I doing know, I mean, yeah, it's been almost totally different then I thought it would be. I love it. I don't know if I would... I don't consider it my career. Were I to, for some reason, loose this job tomorrow, would I be like, "Alright, better find another church to do worship for"? I don't think so. I mean, not only do I think that I'm called to be the worship pastor for this church, that's how I feel now. I don't feel like I'm called to got on another church. So if I didn't work for the church, I guess I would just do a different job. But also, but I don't think any other church would have me.

Why?

Because I don't like to do the job how most churches like to do it, or do the songs that most churches want you to do. I think either I'd quite or they'd fire me. Laughs. Yeah, I don't view music as a career. I view it as a calling to this specific church. If I were to loose the job, I would just go back to...

But that feels healthy. It feels organic, even just watching you do your thing. This is you doing this because this is how you serve the church. It's in this capacity, but ultimately you are still going to serve the church through music wherever you are.

Right. Yeah. So, I mean I've changed a lot in that I've embraced the role in ways that... I never thought that I would have a job that I would do. I actually realise that I care a lot about how worship is done. Not only artistically, but like, even more so on a pastoral level.

What is that?

Well, I feel like my job is first and foremost carrying for the musicians and volunteers that are put under my care. That's number one, fostering that community, pastoring this community of these people at the church. I don't think that my job is to be the guy who makes music. I feel like worship pastors nowadays they are the guys who are hired to make music that sounds good, and looks good, and people can... "Can you sing good? And play guitar good? Then you're the worship pastor!" How does that qualify you to be a pastor? You're just a musician. And there [are]a lot of guys who can sing good, and play good, and look good on a stage, and be compelling. But I don't feel that's the appropriate thing. I feel like first and foremost, when you pastor people, do you care about the people who are put under your care? Do you have a healthy vision of what constitutes healthy, humble worship rather than a concert? And then, maybe, like 5th down the line, can you sing.... Actually, I don't think it even is on the list. [It}doesn't matter. If a church is like a family of Christ, do you care if you're around the dinner table and your brother tells a joke and it's not good? It's your bother, just let him tell a joke. I don't even think it matters.

But your musicians are very good.

They are very good. Yeah. I don't know. I'm blessed to serve at a church where the musicians are so good. So I can't take it for granted.

 So let’s say you have someone that comes in and says, "I want to serve the church this way" but he or she is not the best musician – yet. What would that look like? Especially since you've got such good talent.

Right, yeah, there's the brass tacks of everyday, where I have a rotation of 40 something musicians who are all pretty stinking good. Do I have a need for even a really good musician right now? Not really. I will try to use them somewhere because I want everyone to be able to serve with their gifts if they can. But what I've done in the past is when somebody wants to serve in the worship team but they're just not good.... which happens. I mean, [if] they can't play their instrument well enough it would be a distraction, it would take away from it. Or they don't have experience playing with other people, all sorts of things. Usually I have to gently tell them that they can serve yet, and that they should maybe try to serve the church in some other way, with other skills or interests that they have. But I always offer to continue playing with them, to help [them]. I have a group that I meet with every other week. They might not be ready to play on a regular rotation, but I want to pastor them and I want to help them get better. Maybe sometime they can play. I don't just say, "Sorry, not good enough." I don't like the whole idea of it being an audition process. Like an American Idol thing.

Offering that takes more work out of you, but then that's pastoring.

Yeah. I'm the pastor. So we get together and we play. There's not a promise that they ever will be on the rotation, but maybe they aren't supposed to be. Laughs.

But you're still going to learn how to enjoy...

Yeah. If nothing else, I can help you learn how to play with other musicians better and listen.

When it comes to disciplining artists in the community, because Portland's got a lot of artists, which is really cool...

Mhm.

But as a church you are called to disciple people and artists have specific shortcomings and idolatries...

Sure! Laughs.

...that are specific to them. How do you, as a church, disciple artists?

Hmm. I mean, we're not a church that's very programmatic. We try very hard not to be. So, we try to be as organic as we can. But how do I disciple artists outside of trying to go through life with people who go to the church who are artist, and be their friend and their pastor? Laughs.

Outside of that, I guess we try to be very real with.... Artist have the tendency in communities to think that they are a gift to the church, like the church needs artists. That's something that's talked about all the time. But artists very rarely think that they need the church. So I try to tell artists that we don't really need them, and that they actually just need the church and [need] to be in community. And you know what? It's cool that you paint good. [But] you need to be here every week and just, like, serve coffee. Laughs. Right?

Totally!

I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art, like, "I live for my art." No. You live for Jesus. And you're lucky to be able to do art. "The church needs me." No. That's ridiculous. Like, we'd be fine without the painter. We'd be fine without 48 musicians. We could have one guy up there with a guitar lead[ing] a hymn and it would be awesome. So we don't need you. You need the church. Laughs. That's how I disciple artists. Laughs.

That's good! And you mentioned that idolatry piece. I find I'm understanding more about how much my identity is placed in what I'm doing. Even when I'm getting frustrated by my creativity – I can't write, or it doesn't succeed, or whatever – that's where I place all my identity.

Oh, of course.

Are there things you've found as an artist that you have to kill?

Yeah. I mean, I'm killing sin all the time, right? Laughs. It never dies. It won't be dead. And in any artist the tension is always there, because it's the tension of being imperfect, selfish, broken humans that...

Speaking for myself, I love making music. I love finishing a song and playing it and being pleased by it. Is that healthy? Only to a certain extent. Like, what are the reasons why I like to put out music that people like? I'm sure most of those reasons aren't glorifying to God. And every artist is like that. No artist makes art without the idea that they want people to like it. Well, why do they want people to like it? Why does it matter?

When you notice that in yourself, do you continue to make art? Or do you pause sometimes and not put it out?

No, because I don't think that's any healthier. Laughs. You've got to deal with the problem, and certainly I think that as beings created in the image of God, part of that is being creators, and everybody is.

I feel like that's a whole other thing. Artist's get put on this pedestal as being like, "You guys have that part of the image of God!” But everybody's a creative. Literally everything humans do is creative. The guys who laid the pavement out there are artists.

Teachers. Mothers.

Yeah. So, I mean, that's something that has to be stripped away anyways. Like, artists get treated like, "Wow, you guys have that blessing and burden of being creators!" Nah, that's every human, ever. And that's a whole other problem.

No, you don't stop doing art because God gave you that gift. It's not a bad gift.

If he gave you that gift, then with it comes temptations, as every gift does. Perhaps that's how he is disciplining you and how he's sanctifying you.

I mean, I think there are certainly times... I know guys who have really confronted the fact that playing music in some capacity, or making music... "I can not avoid it causing me to sin. In whatever way, this is a threat to me. It causes me... for whatever reason. It causes me to drink too much, because I always drink too much when I play shows." Or, name the reason. Countless reasons why doing art could cause your walk with Jesus to be compromised. And I certainly know guys who have taken that step, that at least for now, I need to not do that.

Or for family reasons.

Right. And I think that's totally respectable. I know guys who have done that and then, years later, have been able to come back to it in a much healthier way. But I don't think anyone should expect that they can do art without constantly battling self.

It's life.

Yeah.

It's really cool to have a church that cultivates a community of creativity. And Door of Hope definitely does that. You just walk in. How do you encourage a church to do that who doesn't? And how do you avoid being seduced by the beauty?

I mean, I think the idea of a church cultivating creativity is a little..... Like I get asked a lot from those who pastor churches that aren't [like ours], "Your church is so creative! How do you cultivate creativity?" Well, if you are serving a church that is not made up of people who are artistic in that particular way, you can't. Laughs. And you shouldn't want to. Because you are serving a church made up of these people. What do they want? And your church is going to look like that.

I think a church should be responsible for the people who make up the church, and not try to be something they aren't. Because they think that's what a good church looks like. Our church looks like this because, for whatever reason, we are a church that from the very beginning [had] a lot of musicians. Musically creative [and] gifted people started coming. And that feeds upon itself. But if we didn't have that, I wouldn't got out to try, like "How do we get these people here? How do we make our music sound like that church’s music? Because I don't think that's healthy.

No, it's not.

So do we cultivate creativity? No, we just have a lot of creative people and we have a healthy view of how they could be used in the church and it's probably not even... I feel Imago Dei does a lot more with their visual artists then we do, and they have a lot more, but they also have found ways to use them that we don't. I don't try to pursue copying them.

You just aren't connected to the needs of that community.

Yeah. I think cultivating creativity is just an idol that churches have that they want to make. They need to do music that works. That worked for that church. What do your people want? Can they even do it?

Because that serves them.

So I wouldn't say we cultivate creativity, we just happen to have people here who want to serve. [We are] trying to guide them in a healthy way to serve, but I'm not trying to get people to be more creative. You can't make... if you have artists, like musicians, you can't make, you don't have to do anything to make them be creative and make music. If anything, you have to stop them from doing a lot of stupid stuff.

And how does that play in? I see of a lot of art organisations that do great work, but you see them start to loose the doctrine side.

Yeah! You know, I could totally think of times when someday said, "I wrote this and I want to do it for the church on Sunday." And maybe I didn't look at it close enough, and I let them do it, and then I think, "Yeah, I shouldn't have let them do it like that. That did not serve the purpose. It shouldn't have been done at church." Either the point hadn't been clear, or, you know, for whatever reason. You can get away with a lot under the guise of being artistic in the church.

It's a pass.

Yeah. And I just think you have to be really strict about it. Chuckles. You have a lot of freedom to [personally] be creative as a Christian. As a member of a church you have a lot of freedom to be creative. Not all of that freedom is allowable in a church service. Where I work at a church, a big part of my job is overseeing a church worship service.

Freedom under the context of the proper framework.

I wouldn't play a Parson’s song in church. Even though it's something I do that I think brings glory to God, I wouldn't do it, because it's selfish. I mean, as far as guiding artists away from doing stupid stuff, you can't. They're always going to do stupid stuff. Laughs. But being willing to have those hard conversations. How many times [I hear about them outside] the church just being, doing all sorts of dumb stuff outside of the church, how that reflects on the church and how that reflects on them. Are you going to have those conversations that are hard? And be like, "What are you doing  and why are you... Why do people see you smoke pot after church, that's crazy? Why are you talking like this?" That's pastoring. That's holding people accountable.

And it's not just for artists.

Right.

How did Deeper Well come about?

Pretty much just through me and Josh talking. When I started working, he had just finished his last record for Tooth and Nail. He had finished his contract for Telecast, a big worship band. He finally finished his contract, he was so happy to be done doing that. But you know, he is a creative guy, he writes music all the time. [He's] still constantly writing music. So what does that look like now, [with] both of us being musicians wired to write songs? We have a real heart for musicians making music. So he's got songs, he's done with Tooth and Nail, [he] certainly doesn't want to go down that road again. And then starting to look at his songs and other musicians in the church who were writing songs for the church. This is something that God has blessed this church with. What are we supposed to do with this? Are we just supposed to sing these songs on Sunday? Or can we do something, like we talked earlier, to address the need in Christian culture, in worship culture? Is there a way that we can do it differently? Can we learn about Josh's bad experience with contemporary Christian music and can we do something else?

What has the impact been on the church and its community?

I think it's helped our worship. I think there's something really powerful about having the bulk of the songs that you sing as a community being written by people who've been in the community. Because they speak to our growth as a church, and they've come from our experience as a church. I think it's undeniable that when we sing 'Victory in the Lamb' it's powerful. Because it's a powerful song, but also because Wesley wrote it, and he's part of our church, and he wrote it while he was at our church. [There's] just something inherently strong about that.

I've heard that it's brought other people to the church. I'm blown away by the reach that it's had. Like Miranda [a missionary from our congregation] on Sunday [telling us that] people in Nepal have heard of it. That blows my mind, and it's humbling to hear.

But how it's affected our church? It's strengthen our worship. I love that we've been able to serve the musicians that we have by allowing them the ability to make a record that they're proud of, that serves the church but is also something that helps them grow,

It's affirming as artists!

It strikes me how Wesley's songs are very much hymns, with a traditional hymn structure. But Deeper Well has also released stuff that's very much not. Those songs are played different style. They even have a different way of writing words. It's neat that those can exist in the same context. I'm curious why that happens and how you avoid having it so simple and one dimensional.

I think it's just by not telling people what to do. Laughs. Being willing to have Holly write her songs and be like, "These are good!" Pastoring her, but not being like, "No, it should be more like this." People are unique, and by writing these great songs... I'm not looking at Wesley's songs and [saying], "These have the potential to be great if he does x y and z." But seeing them as they are. Seeing Cory's songs that he's written as a song writer, not because of what I've told him to do. Because he has the gift of writing songs. All these people are better at writing songs then me, in my opinion, so what should I tell them what to do?

I've enjoyed having the Sunday worship sets up on SoundCloud.

Yeah, isnt' that cool? Not my idea. But it ended up being a good idea. I'm like, so cautious about putting the music up on any sort of pedestal. I'm just all about why. Why would we do that? Wouldn't that just make people idolise the music and the musicians?

And covet the quality of your church's music?

Sure. So I'm always more about saying no then yes. But our executive pastor was like, "We've got such great music that could bless churches all over the place. It could bless people at our church that want to hear this music throughout their week." He was like, "Even more so..." – and he probably said this to convince me –"there are other churches who could really use the inspiration of hearing these worship songs done in a way that, clearly, you think is good, because that's how you do it."

So I was convinced. I drew the line at audio. He's like, "We could film it?" No. Yeah, so it’s been great and I've been blown away by how many people are listening to it.

I've really enjoyed it. It's been a great way to get ideas for new ways of doing songs. Like, hearing a different person sing Of Old it was Recorded and thinking, "Okay you could do it this way too. " Even Liz's version of Amazing Grace that you did yesterday.  I want to do it like that, and now I can look it up later.

I was thinking of [that song as an example of] why not to tell people what to do. Liz was like, "I heard the Blind Boys of Alabama do Amazing Grace this way and I loved it.” So we did it through once. [But] for my taste I didn't want to, it seemed a little silly. I just didn't gravitate towards that idea. [But I thought,] "Is there any real reason outside of my personal taste why I wouldn't want to do that? Does it change the content of the song? Does it make it less singable? No, people will pick up on it just fine."

So you've never done it like that in the church at all?

No, no. Liz just suggested we do it that way.

I just didn't have any reason, other than my taste, to say no. And that's not a good enough reason. So I was like, "All right, let's do it. It works with your voice good. I guess we'll do it." And, it turns out, my taste was wrong, because everybody loved it. Laughs.

It was fun to sing to! I sang along louder on that then probably anything else that morning.

I got a ton of comments about it. So I was wrong! So all the better for me to not go with my tastes most of the time.

Well, this has been a terrific conversation. Thank you for for your time!

You're welcome! I'm glad that you are able to meet with Wesley, and talk to Paul [Ramey at Imago Die]. You're going to get all kinds of different perspectives [from him.} Laughs.

What's it like having two different churches with similar focuses, especially both in the same neighbourhood?

Yeah. Well, similar but different, We just have different ways of doing church. Neither wrong nor right.

Um, I love it. I think more churches need to be more unified and less divided about things that don't matter. And I think Imago does a ton of great stuff, and they do a ton of stuff that we don't do. And so to know that there's a church right there that's doing all of this stuff, and somebody might come to our church and not like it, but they can just go right over there and know that they can got to a church that is preaching truth, and doing great things, and loves people. It's not a competition.

It's cool that that events like Canvas Conference that can bring that talent and the people of the community together that way.

Yeah, I think Portland's unique in that [way]. At the first Wednesday of every month there's a lunch at Imago. Any worship pastor or worship leader from the Portland area is welcome to come, and we all just come together. Usually like 10-15 different churches are represented. And we just we talk about stuff, sometimes there are different themes, sometimes not. We sing and worship together, we pray together. And it's us! I think it's a healthy way to get there.

Yeah, I mean Paul's a good friend. He and I get together pretty regularly. I love the guy. We probably don't agree on somethings, [like] philosophies of how to do church, but I don't know if Jesus cares about it or not. Laughs.

Portland gets that reputation of being one of the least churched cities [in America] but I'm not sure where that comes from.

I wonder if it's a Pacific Northwest thing?

Maybe...

 That statistic applies to Victoria for sure. Maybe Vancouver,  but not as much. I don't know about Seattle...

I don't know. I just look at all the churches that I think are great around here and I think, "How can [Portland] possibly be unchurched?” I look at our church and Imago, and [at] how many younger people are involved. To me, I can't relate to that statistic.

Last year I talked to Tim Mackie more about the unique church situation in Portland. There's a certain strange flavour to this city, but when I'm amongst the Christians I remember why I keep coming back.

Yeah, and I mean certainly with any major city, there's plenty of opposition to the Gospel and the people who are not into it are really not into it. And that's fine, but that's everywhere.

That's a good thing. It means you are not watering down the gospel.

Yeah. I mean, I would love for that not to be the case. Me and Josh have had this [conversation] sometime. It seems like sometimes people come to plant a church, or do ministry here, and they are almost proud. "Yeah, we're going to Portland, the most unchurched city. It's cool." It's not cool! I'd much rather it be he most churched [state]. We're praying ourselves out of a job. I'd rather it be more churched then less churched, but I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime. And I love this city, and a ton of my good friend are entirely opposed to the gospel. I'll work on [that]. Laughs.

It's neat that you're involved in the music scene as a pastor. I've been to churches where the staff seem to be in the church office all day. At my current church the staff include farmers, firemen, teachers, and a former Chelsea football star.

That's awesome.

Yeah, it brings this real-world grit to their ministry.

Making music outside of church, and being in that context grounds you.

 That's important. It's evangelism in its own way, maybe.

I think it's totally valuable, I encourage all my musicians, "Don't just make music here. This is the safe place to do it."

Do they all do it in bands?

A lot of them do, not all of them. Its' such a wide spectrum. And some just do it at church, they've got three kids [and a] full time job, but they love playing guitar. But in anyway that you can, I do encourage people to.

Well, thanks again for your time! This has been excellent.

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An Interview with A Ghost Story Director David Lowery

The movie I was most excited to see last year was David Lowery’s highly acclaimed little indie film A GHOST STORY. The problem is that highly acclaimed indie films tend to arrive in Calgary months after everyone else gets them.

Then one Friday evening in early summer I got an email from my editor at Mockingbird. “We’ve been given access to a screener for A GHOST STORY and the option to interview the director. Would you be interested?”

I watched the movie. I watched endless interviews of David. I reached out to writer friends for advice. I wrote scores of questions and ran them past my editor. Then I had 20 minutes on the phone with David and it went really well. It was an open dialogue about the issues that challenge both of us. I’m rather proud of the result and I hope you head over to Mockingbird to read the full thing.

 

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Micah Bournes: The Complete Interview

A while back, my profile on Micah Bournes was published on Mockingbird. Micah is a hip-hip artist, spoken word poet, and a blues singer. For a distilled look at his creative process, check out the original article. But there were many topics in our conversation that didn’t make it into the final draft, so I’m posting the entire, fascinating interview here. Enjoy it, and if Micah’s thought process resonates with you, his new hip-hop album, A Time Like This is due to be released in early January.

Hey, what's up brother.

Hey doing well, how are you?

Real good. Yeah man, Thanks for your patience. I'm glad we finally got to connect. I know stuff has been crazy for a minute, but I'm looking forward to this conversation.

Thanks for making it happen! I was just going to say that your album has been in my "heavy rotation" since it came out. It’s been one of those albums that I call “shower karaoke,” in that I sing along to it and really enjoy it, but than it sticks with you and causes a lot of thought. So thanks for your hard work on it.

Yeah, that's awesome man, I appreciate it. I'm glad it's been something that you've been able to engage with on that level. That's cool.

Oh yes, on multiple levels. It’s fun music.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the album process and how you've gone from spoken word poetry to this, and then I also have some questions on the book you recommended, Art and Fear. (I've given several copies away. I have some questions on how the themes of that book applied to this art making process.)

Man, I'm glad you read that too, because for me, when it comes to things that I've read, I don’t think anything has had such an influence on my creative process as that book

Really!

Just because it addressed so many of the hesitations and insecurity that I had and... well, I'll get to that. Let's get to the album first and then talk about that book, because I could talk about that book forever. [Laughs.] I suggest it to every creative I meet that's struggling. [I’m] like, "Read this book, read this book, read this book!” Yeah.

It's a powerful book. I bought a copy for a friend and I just bought another copy as a Christmas gift for another friend, so yeah. A little cottage industry of Micah Bournes recommendations are keeping that publisher alive.

How is the spoken word album creation process different from the blues album process?

Yeah, incredibly different. Well, I guess I'll just talk about how I got into blues from spoken word.

I see myself as a creative writer. [Yet] a lot of folks see me as a spoken word poet, and I own that, but when I started writing, it was not poetry. It was all hip-hop, it was rap lyrics. For the first two years I started writing [during] the freashmen year of college, so the first two years of college all I wrote was hip-hop. It wasn't until I was 20, my junior year of college, that I got invited to an open mic [event where] I saw spoken word live for the first time. I had seen it on YouTube but it wasn't until I was 20 years old that I saw it live.

And that's when I started writing poetry because I just really liked the environment of the open mic and how inviting it was for people to just share about anything. When I got into spoken word, it wasn't like I was going to quit rapping and just do spoken word. It inspired me in the same way that hip-hop inspired me when I fell in love with it. It was just like, “Oh man, I want to try that” because it looked like fun. And it wasn't like a career shift. I mean, it ended up being [one, but] it wasn't an intended career shift to switch from hip-hop to spoken word.

And kind of the same thing happened with blues. I had no intention of trying to shift from being a spoken word artist to [being a] blues musician. And even still, [now that] the blues album is out I don't know if I will ever do another one. It was just an idea. I got inspired.

The way that happened was I actually started listening to this band called The Black Keys. They are like modern blues rock type [band],  but heavily blues [influenced]. I don't know if you have this in Canada, but there is this website called Pandora where basically you put in an artist that you like and they display other artists that are similar, and kind of help you discover new music and stuff like that. So I made a Pandora station and put the first  input as The Black Keys. And it was amazing, because all of a sudden Pandora started playing all these old-school blues artists.

Now I had heard some of the names, [but] a lot of the names I hadn't. I didn't grow up listening to blues. My parents, they listened to a lot of kinda soul and funk but they didn't listen to blues [while I was] growing up. So I started listening and falling in love with all of these old school blues artists. It was something that caught my attention, because for a genre that I did not grow up listening to and had very little experience with, it felt so familiar. And I realised that was because blues came out of the black American tradition. And so I'm listening to these songs as I kind of ventured away from The Black Keys and [as I] listened to other blues artist I was like, "Man, the vocabulary they are singing, the stories they are telling, it feels so familiar!” It came from the Southern United States. My grandma’s from Mississippi, [so] everything they were communicating reminded me of my great-uncles and aunties and grandmothers and cousins. And so for someone who never listened to blues, I felt so at home. And it as like "Man!" So I just fell in love with it. And I just listened to it left and right. I was just listening to the Pandora station and so it's not like I knew a bunch of blues artists or nothing, but I would just let it play, all the time. I had a part-time job and every time  I was at work I would put on this Pandora station.

Well, just like with spoken word, after a while of listening to it so much, I just thought, maybe I should… It wasn't even conscious [decision, but] when I would sit down to write, instead of rap or poetry,  it would come out in a song, like in my head.  I don't play an instrument, and [at the time I] didn't sing. So I had no intention of doing anything with these songs , I just started this because they were the ideas in my head, so I thought, “Why not get them out.”

But the writing process was very different. With both spoken word and hip-hop you have a lot of words per song. In a three to five minute poem you are  constantly talking. And with hip-hop, a lot of it is flexing your lyral ability - turn of phrase, and metaphor, and double entendre. You're working with complex sentences, and structure, and poetic devices to make it beautiful in spoken word and with hip-hop. But with blues I noticed it was, number one, a lot fewer words per song.

A blues songs had maybe a third of the words that a hip hop song or a spoken word poem would have, even if it were the same length. A three minute blues song has so few words. But then [in blues you are] also pulling from a simpler vocabulary. You might still use metaphor, but it wasn't in the same way of metaphor on top of metaphor [and] complexity. Blues [language] was very common, every day language, [using] particular  dialects [from] the African-American community. So, not only common [words] but specifically black kind of ways of speaking. So when I first started writing, I realised that [my initial] songs were too wordy because I had a background in hip hop and spoken word. It was really a discipline to learn; “How do I  tell a story and create a world of art that's just as powerful as the way my spoken word pieces impact people?” But [doing so with] fewer words and simpler vocabulary.

At first I felt like I had my hand tied behind my back, but after a while [I realized that] it's not about dumbing it down, it's just being more intentional about your diction, about your word choice. You have to be precise, because you have fewer words, every word matters. And there are definitely times in spoken word pieces where I'm like, “I could have done without these sentences” or whatever, but with blues, it's like “You don't got that many words, you gotta make sure you do the right ones.” And so, yeah, that was a fascinating discipline. And then, another thing I noticed about blues is that there’s a lot of repetition. But it doesn't feel montanous or boring, it's just the way blues [are] repeated, it causes the messages to sink in in a different way. It's almost like I'm chanting it to you.

So yeah, man that's kind a how I got into it and then the recording process, was very different because…. What happened was, I didn't have any intentioan of doing a blues album. As a writer I just got inspired by the genre and started writing songs. But the songs on [‘No Ugly Babies’] were written over the course of probably four years. Because as I was writing them, I wasn't thinking about an album. I would just leave them because I didn't have a band and I didn't sing. I'd be writing poetry all of the time, and then every now and then, every few months, [I’d write a] blues song. They would just be on my computer.

After about three years I was like, “Man, I have about 15 songs.” Then I went on tour with a band, doing poetry, and I met this guy who was a musician and a producer and we start talking about music. He's telling me about how he loves The Black Keys and how he loves blues rock. And I'm like “Dude,  I love that stuff!” So we became good friends, and then by the end of the tour I thought to myself, “Hey, if there is anybody…” Because he had showed me some of the other work that he produced. So I said, “Hey man, look, I got all of these blues songs. I don't play guitar. I don't really sing, but I think they are good songs. So maybe if I showed you them and you like them, maybe we can collaborate and we can bring these things to life.”

So he said, “Sure, send them my way.” So I basically recorded myself singing them, with no music, just me singing out the melody. I sang them onto my phone and I emailed him all the files. I sent him 13, no proably more like 15 songs of just me singing. Me like, "I don't pay no mind to no hate", like just like that. And so he listened to them and he responded; “Man, I really like these songs! We can defiantly make this happen.”

So it was very different from my spoken word album, because with a spoken word album I just worked with one person primarily; my hip-hop producer.  A lot of hip-hop sounds - although some hip- hop definitely does incorporate live instrumentation as well - with a lot of modern hip-hop it's the beat or most of the sounds are either samples from preexisting recordings of music or are generated off of computer programs, or they're electronic sounds that are pre-recorded and just dropped in. And so even though a lot of the poetry albums that I've done have full music behind them, it was all done - with the exception of maybe one or two - it was all done by one producer and so it's just him putting in all of the sounds electronically.

Well, with this blues album pretty much all the songs - there might be one or two songs when we used programming, with sounds that we added to it. But all of the songs are live instrumentation. And with the exception of the one that's just the guitar, they all have at least 3, sometimes 5 musicians on them. So that process of working with, you know, people and real musicians, as opposed to one person who is dropping in a lot of sounds from a computer, was very different. We had these ideas in our head, and maybe a general melody, but then the drummer brought his personality to it. The basest and the keyboard brought her personality to it.

So we had these ideas and we are incoperating all these folks and we're like - oh,  this sounds different then how I thought it was going to sound. Sometimes better, sometimes no, I don't like this. Whenever there's more people involved there's more things to coordinate. More things that need to happen. But at the same time, you also have more creativity,  more perspectives, and so it… felt much more collaborative than my spoken word albums. They were collaborative too. But then there were [only] two people, me and the producer.

With this [project], even things like having background vocalists. You never need background vocalists for poetry, even if there's music. All of a sudden, I'm like singing with my friends. I have three voices on this song. On “Happy As Can Be”, I have a whole choir.  A lot of the songs have background vocalists. Before, I never needed to ask my sister, or my mum, or my brothers to come in, because you don't recite poems together on a spoken world album. So like wow, my family is coming in the studio, my friends are coming in the studio, I'm reaching out to musician friends of mine that I knew they played but I didn't have the reason to collaborate with them before, so my buddy Joe played keys on a Four Left Feet, my homie Jackie played keys on Bo Boy Clean, Liz Vice sang on three of the songs. So it really felt collaborative in a way that spoken word hadn't been for me. Which is cool.

And there's that sense of you being a little bit vulnerable and reaching out to people, like you mentioned on your social media about the vocal coach that you had to meet with, and reaching out to Liz Vice out of nowhere and saying, "Hey, can we collaborate on this?” There is a vulnerability that comes with that when you are not in control.

Yeah, totally, totally and I think vulnerability is a good word for that whole process,  because with spoken word I've been doing my thing for a while, So when I record a spoken word album or project or song, I have so much confidence because it's tried and true. It's like, "I know I'm good at this". But with blues it's like, dang. It's not that I think I have a terrible voice, [it’s just] I don't have a tired and true voice. I've never done a tour. I've never put out an album before. So I don't know, and it’s scary. For the first time in a long time I'm in the studio feeling nervous, like is it good enough? I'm taking 20 takes of every song because I’m nervous. So it was crazy for me to see how much that affected my performance, even in the studio. Being relaxed is the most important thing, Because I know I don't have a natural Usher, or Michael Jackson R&B voice.

Blues is about channelling the right emotion. And some of the best blues vocal sets have these real kinda gritty voices that might sound a splatter off-key sometimes, but for the genre and the things they have to communicate, it’s perfect. Because, again, it was birthed out of the black community during a time when it was pain. It's pain, and they are singing about poverty, and they are singin about heartache, and they are singing about facing prejudice, and so that [doesn’t result in] a clean, neat sound.

At first I was trying to sound good. And then I was like, no, I don't need to sound good. I need to channel the right emotions. As a spoken word artist, I have a lot of experience channeling emotions into performance. So when I thought about it like that, I was like, okay, I need to relax and realize that if I connect emotionally to these songs, my voice would do what it needs to do. I can’t do what I'm not capable of. I can't sing real pretty, but that's not what I need here. And so I begin to relax and trust myself. And a lot of that had to do with having the vocal coach, and having Blaine tell me, "It sounds good, calm down and just do your thing, trust yourself.” So yeah man, it was very, very vulnerable being in that place of not being sure if it was going to be good or if I was good enough to do this. I'm glad I challenged myself in that way.

You mentioned how the songs are more - you mentioned chanting, repetition, simplicity. I have a friend who says when you write a short story you use a lot of words, whereas when you write a song you are compressing it into into very few words, which is a way bigger challenge.

What did this medium of blues allow you to say that you wouldn't have been able to say if you had not used it?

Oh absolutely. Not only what I'm saying but how it is being received. For example: if somebody sees me perform spoken word, and likes it, and buys the album, you can listen to it on the regular all you want, but you don't really participate in spoken word. You just appreciate it. You watch it. But with blues, like you were saying, with music in general, but particularly the blues is repetitive at times, like "I don't pay no mind" over and over again. What it does is it washes over the listener in a way that spoken word or hip-hop [doesn’t]. A lot of folks like hip-hop, but it's not as easy to pick up all the words and to rap along, right? But with the simplcity and reputation of blues, I'm like “man, the things that I say people are going to singing them in the shower. People are going to be playing them in the car on your way to work and on your way home. People are going to get them stuck in their heads and are going to be humming them while they are vacuuming and cleaning their house.” That's very different from someone who listens to a spoken word piece or watches a spoken word. They may be super impressed by it and like it, but it doesn't really get stuck in their heads and they don't sing along.

 

It made me think; what are the messages that I want folks to have on repeat in their heads? Like, what are the choruses that I want them to be singing over and over and over again, the truths that I want to be washing over their minds and hearts on a regular basis? That's the responsiblity! And so I love that. I love that people are walking around singing that they're not going to let themselves be overcome by hate. I love that. I love that people are walking around singing that “I'm not ugly.” “God ain't gave me no ugly babies.” “I'm handsome, I'm pretty, I'm worth, I look, I look good, I look good, I look good”, you know? [Laughs.] Those are the things, like [starts singing];  “I look good, ma, you look good!” That is a repeated, intentional phrase, like, tell yourself this over and over and over again. God made me good. He made humans and said it was good. And there is beauty in who we are, in addition  to our brokenness, of course. So it’s things like that that a allowed  me to communicate in a way and using qualities that the other genres I had written in didn't really possess.

I would say that spoken word lures you in and kind of shocks you. And blues does too, when you realize what it is saying. But I’m not going to put a spoken word album on repeat.

No.

You sit down and listen to it. Whereas with this, you play it while driving around.

What would the consequences have been if you had kept yourself in the comfortable medium you were used to?

The thing is, if you don't try stuff that is different than you are going to become a one trick pony. You are going to get stuck. Yeah, you can always come back to your home base and the things that you are known for, but I look at every major artist that I respect, and they were constantly pushing themselves to the limit. You don't know what you can do unless you push yourself and do stuff that you can’t. If we're talking about business here, if we're taking about having fianicnal success as an artist, [then recording this blues album] was a poor investment.

I have spent the last four years building up a following for spoken word poetry. All of my invitations are for venues and events that want a poet, not a blues artist, not a blues band. Nobody knows me for that. I’m starting from scratch. But the thing is, my aim was never to build a successful spoken word business. My aim was to express myself through the creativity that God has put inside me. I know that it is easy to stick to what is already tried and try. But I think about spoken word and how that was a risk. For two years people liked my rap and they were booking me for rap. If I were to just stay with that - and I had been listening to hip-hop from birth. So it felt familiar, it felt very at home. Poetry was foreign. This was - oh this was new, spoken word was a weird thing. But I’m like man, if I had only stuck with what was safe, I would have missed this beautiful aspect of what I’m capable of.

So I always want to be pushing myself. And that doesn’t always necessarily mean a new genre as drastic as this. One thing I’ve been trying to do lately - I do a lot of storytelling, [but] I don’t use use a lot of metaphors. I don’t use a lot of imagery or extended metaphors, because I like straight-up storytelling. But I’ve found recently a couple times, while listening to my friend’s words, I’m like, “Man.” I somethings resent metaphor a little bit because I think it’s overdone and people make it really confusing, they stack metaphor on top of metaphor and you don’t know what they are talking about . But when it's done well, it really does enhance understanding and makes it beautiful. So I’m challenging myself as a writer, [because] storyline is easier for me. But how can I write poetry that uses metaphors that enhances comprehension rather than make it more convoluted?

I do think that’s possible. I do think a lot of times poets hide behind the metaphor and they abuse metaphors. Because, yeah, I think the intention behind metaphor is that you have something you want to communicate and you doin’t quite have the words for it in plain speech. So you liken it to something in culture or in the world that your audience is familiar with so that it better resonates with the person, so that they comprehend it even more, rather than less. And what happens is that people use it in a way that folks don’t understand it.

But I think about the Psalms and here you have David, who grew up as a shepherd boy, and was very familiar with shepherding, and the culture he lives in is very familiar with shepherding. And so when he sits down to write a song or a poem about his relationship with God, he goes, “You know what it’s kinda like? It’s kinda like a shepherd and the sheep. You know how a shepherd takes his sheep and leads it to green pastures and he protects it and he restores it and he puts it by the river and make sure it drinks… that’s like… the Lord is my shepherd. That’s what it’s like.”

To me, that is how metaphors is supposed to be used. He’s speaking to a culture that’s familiar with these things. So they listen to it and they. “Oooh, okay.” That's a metaphor that enhances understanding, instead of making it more convoluted. And that’s something that I do appreciate when its done well. And so often poets, particular, try to be so deep, that it’s metaphor on top of metaphors, and I'm confused, I don’t know what you are talking about. But now I'm like, you know, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so I'm pushing myself to engage with metaphor and extended metaphors that will both beautify my writing and enhance comprehension.

Because sometimes a metaphors does work better than saying it straight up, when you liken it to something, and folks are like “oh, now it’s connecting the dots.” Which is why preachers use it all the time for sermon illustration, because if they had just said it straight up it wouldn’t have driven home like likening it to something would have.

You mentioned earlier about pushing yourself and making yourself vulnerable in the new medium. Art & Fear talks a lot about that; the fear of failure and the fear of quitting that comes from that. Were there times when you were tackling this new medium, that… Maybe because I’m a younger artist, but my identity gets so caught up with my success. When I think that my writing is turning out to be successful, I’m thrilled, but when I think it isn’t worth it, then I just start to question everything. What was that process like during this new art form, especially as a believer?

Yeah. Let’s go into Art & Fear. The last part of the question, [about] the new art form; a lot of the reason I was able to approach it this way was from the things I learned from reading Art & Fear a few years ago. I didn’t have a deadline. I knew it was something new. And it took me two years, two full years to write and record all this stuff. I had no deadline. I knew that I ddin't know what I was doing. I knew that it wasn't going to be good right away from the first time, [from the] first draft. I knew that we were going to have to go back to the drawing boards a lot. So I gave myself the freedom and the time to create without going, “oh it’s not working.” No no, I’m trying something new.

And when you are trying something new you have to be patient with yourself. You don’t expect it to be amazing. You’re figuring it out. And [for] the whole album I was figuring out my sound. It wasn’t until about half way through, so about the 5th or 6th song, that we hit any type of stride in finding the sound we wanted. So the second half of the songs [that] we recorded were great. But once we finished those, we went back. There were three songs in particular that [we] completely started over [with]. Like, threw out all the music we had and approached it differently. Because we didn’t hit our stride until half way through.

But I guess to me, I already knew that it wasn’t going to be amazing right off the bat. That we had to figure it out slowly, and [the reason] I knew that [was] because of Art & Fear, really. And this is why [the book] is so influential with me. For me the premise, like, the repeated theme in the whole book was "no matter what type of artist you are, no matter how good or bad you think you are, most of what you do is going to not be good. Most of your work is going to suck.” And there’s a line in it where [they] say. “what the artist needs to understand, is that the purpose of the vast majority of your work is simply to show you how to create the small portion that will be good.” And that, to me, that freedom to create knowing good and well that even the best artists in the world… It’s so arrogant to think that every time I pick up my pen every single poem or song I’m going to write is going to be brilliant. Every time this person picks up his brush it’s going to be a classic. Every time she opens her mouth… That’s so unrealistic! And it’s so much pressure! So that book helped me realize to just fearlessly create. In the sense, when you get ideas, just get them out. Just create them. They are not all going to be good. In fact, most of them won't be good.

It was Art & Fear, and also a few other things that I watched. Like, I ended up  watching a documentary on Pablo Picasso, I believe it was. By the end of his life was incredibly wealthy, he had his pictures hanging for half a million dollars in museums and all these things. But, when he died he lived a mansion that was like three or four stories high and had a basement, and they went into his home and all along the walls of his basement, stacked like 10 canvases deep, all along the wall was just canvas after canvas of mediocre, not that good, paintings. So for every brilliant Picasso painting hanging in a museum there were like 10-12 canvases in his basement collecting dust that he thought were not even good encough to share, but [that] he still painted. And so that's how I feel about song writing, or poetry. No matter how good I am, 8 out of 10 are going to be either mediocre or bad. So if I let that discourage me, I’m just not going to have a lot. But if I let that say, “Hey I don't care, I'm just going to create” and I write 100 poems, I’ll have 80 bad poems but I’ll have 20 good ones instead of just the two.

So it’s kinda like that. I just I let myself create. I try to get the the ideas out and not put the pressure on me not being good. That helped me not put the pressure on the album. I took my time and I was proud of it in the end.

What does that look like in the social media age, in which every artist has a social media account and can post a photo right away, or the idea right away? It seems harder to guard against that.

I think that is a huge temptation of immediacy. Whether it’s a song or a poem. Especially if they like it, which might not actually mean it’s good, because a lot of times artists have a personal connection to their work, that other people… Like, you love this but it’s actually not your best work. But there’s this temptation to share immediately. And I get it, because when I write something that I like I want to show the world.

But sometimes it needs time to develop. Sometimes you can share prematurely. If you’re posting singles the whole time you’ll never get around to posting the album and, when you do, everything will be out already. Sometimes if you’re posting every poem you write, by the time your book comes out nobody’s going to be excited because they’ve seen it all already. And I think if you have the displine to to hold some things close to your chest and let them develop and be refined, that’s definitely something that I’ve had to learn to do. Even with the blues album, there were so many times in the studio where I loved it, and I wanted to post clips to the song and it I was like, “No no, just wait, just let it be.” But yeah, it’s not an immediate thing. It takes a lot of time. No matter what your art form is.

I think people are impatient. I meet folks who want to be an artist or a singer or whatever and they have this incredibly unrealistic timeline in their heads. Like okay, I’m going to quite my job, and I’m going to work really, really hard for like 6-9 months, and if this thing isn’t off the ground in a year then I’m going to go back to my full time job. And I’m like, “Do you understand? I am four years deep and [am] still unknown.” And I don't resent that, because things have grown. But, by and large I'm a no name artist. I’m not selling out shows. I can't book a venue. You saw me. Going over to my homegirl’s back yard and reading three poems for 15 people. But, I’ve also had some opportunities for bigger stuff, but [over all it’s been a] very slow and gradual process.

And very few people… I know that’s the narrative that TV and media shows [emphasize}, the artist who gets discovered and boom, [becomes] an overnight celebrity. But when I look at the artists that I respect the most and whose work I really appreciate, I see years. [So] don't think about where you want to be in 1 or 2 years. Think about where you want to be in 10 years. 10 years as an artist.

When I look at artist like Josh Garrels, when I look at artists like Propaganda, even still these guys aren't celebrities. But I love Josh Garrels’ music and he has a sizeable following right now. When you look at him though… I wasn’t familiar with his work until ‘Love and War and the Sea In Between’ [came out]. So I’m like, “Oh wow, this album is amazing.” And I loved it. Well, to me, in my head, he’s a new artist at the time when that [album] came out. Well, I look him up, [and] the dude is not new. At that time he had had several albums out. He had been making music for a decade. And he is still, to this day, relatively unknown. He has a strong enough following to support himself. But he is by no means as big as a lot of artists, especially those who are talking about faith.

And yet, the funny thing was I love, loved, ‘Love and War and the Sea In Between’. But then I listen back to his other stuff and I liked it, but I didn’t love it nearly as much. And to me, that wasn't a bad thing, that was encouraging. I was like, “Wow, I can actually hear the difference between something you put out today and something you put out three years ago.” He’s grown. And he’s continuing  to take risks and do different stuff and so I love the fact when I see his career it has been gradual, incremental progress. And that’s encouraging!

Because I think about me. I’ve been a full time artist for four years. At this point, with “No Ugly Babies”, this is my 5th release. I have two full length spoken word albums, one full length blues album, and two 5 track hip-hop EPs. So in 4 years I’ve released 5 things. All different. [For] most people who discover my work it’s new, and I'm new. I have [only] 3,000 followers on Instagram. I want to do a full length hip-hop album in the next couple years because that [medium] was my first artwork. So in the next couple years, as things continue to grow folks [will] continue to discover me as this new artists.

No, I'm not new. Whatever I make next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, has all been possible because of these gradual steps that I have been making and pushing myself. That is, to me, [what] successful artists do, by and large, with the exception of a very few who get the right connection and shoot to the top. [For] most successful artist, it is like that. It’s the tortoise verses the hare. I’ve seen it over and over and over again.

And people look and they envy the success and they go, “I want to be there, I want to have what you have. Man, Micah, you’ve been able to travel the world, you’ve been able to do this and do that.” And I’m like: “Yes.” But, I also ate cereal for dinner for the first two years, and I have also invested $15000 of my own dollars on making a blues album. That’s a huge risk. Are you willing to take literally half of your annual income, and invest it in something that might not make you any money? If you are, yeah, maybe you want this life. Are you willing to wait for four, five years, to have some of the opportunity you were hoping to have? Are you willing to make decisions financially and sacrifice some of theses habits of shopping and eating and doing things in  order to do that?

I don't feel like a staving artist because I make financially wise decisions in order to do the things that I want. Like, I have everything I need, but from the car that I drive to the place where I live [I’ve had to make sacrifices]. I have 5 roommates in the house so I can have cheap rent. Because when I keep my expenses low I can invest more of my resources into making the art that I want.

So I just think there are a lot of illusions as to what it means to bean artist and most of it is not glamorous. But then when people see that I’ve got to perform for NBA teams they think I made it. When people see that I went to New Zealand or India or Paris, they’re like “Oh, your famous!” And I’m like, “Nah, this is the result of a lot of hard work, and even still I’m not there. There is no arrival. I’m just continuing to create.”

The book talks a lot about out about failure and pushing on. It’s interesting looking at that and then looking at it as a Christian, who’s identity is beyond just the art he creates. What would you add to it as a Christian that you would encourage other arts who are Christians, especially looking at the sense of failure and identity?

Honestly, part of the reason I love the book is because I thought it was so applicable to the spiritual life. They authors didn’t know it, but they wrote a devotional. People want that same kind of instant success when it comes to spiritual growth and spiritual health, and ministry, and God's will. People think being a mature, having a healthy relationship with God [is immediate]. It takes discipline. It is a slow but sure step-by-step gradual increase in maturing and that comes from just disciplining yourself. And you know what? You're going to make a lot of bad discussions. You going to make mistakes, you’re going to do things and create things that don’t work, but when you do, you keep going, you keep trusting God, you don’t let your failures discourage you. You dust yourself off, you receive the forgiveness, and you push on.

And so I was taking all of these principles they talk about as an artist and applying them to my spiritual life. I’ve done so many things, just like I’ve written so many poems that I though were going to be good and just fell flat. I’ve made so many decisions in life and spirituality, [thinking that] God wants me to do this, and I’m [being] led to do this, and it just crashes and burns. Are you going to throw your hands up and say you’re a bad Christian? Are you going to throw your hands up and say God is done with me? Or, are you going to say, “Okay, guess that’s not what God wanted, let me do something else. Let me not loose hope.” And that’s what people do. They just throw their hands up and say, “This is too hard, life is too hard!” And I’m just like, “Nah, remind yourself of why you are doing it, know that it’s worth it no matter what, and know that you are growing in all the things that you do.”

And even the aspect of them talking about not finding your identity in your work. They are like, “This is a modern thing but there’s been a lot of times in the past when artists would create and that wasn’t their soul. Like, if you don’t like my art, you don’t like me.”

That also is applicable to the spiritual life.Because there’s a lot of people who find their identity in the things they do for God. People in the ministry - and for me, it’s one and the same, because it’s my art, and then also I do see my art as the words of God and God using that. But it’s not who I am, it’s still something I do. And I’ve put a lot of vulnerability, and I’ve put a lot of myself into my art, but my art is not me. So whether it’s the things that you’re doing, whether it’s justice work, or in a formal ministry like working for church or for a youth group. It’s like yes, God is pleased with those things, but God does not love you because of those things. He is is not pleased with you because of the things you are doing.

In the same way as an artist you make beautiful art, but you can’t tie your identity so strongly to it that you are going to be depressed because if people don’t like your art then they don’t like you. And same thing with ministry. If you’re trying to do things for God and it’s not going well and no one is being converted, or the ministry isn’t growing, then you’re going to feel like a personal failure or that you’re not a good Christian. So I just made all these connections reading that book. “This makes so much sense. This is a devotional.”

There’s a line in the book where they talk about how “every artist will leave a thread loose in their work that they can pull on later.” Meaning that if you are working on a great piece of art and you’re exploring these themes, you’re going to leave a thread that you are working with that you want to unravel in your next piece of work.

Oh totally. Because there is no completion. I’ve found it to be a funny thing, that with any project I’m working on, by the time I’m approaching the end of it I’m already thinking of the next one. Because you learn so much in the process! You’re like, “Man, by the end of this album, if I were to start this album today it would sound very different.” But I don’t have time to start all the way over. I have learned so much in this process that although I’m done it feels like I’m just getting started. So it feels incomplete always. I kinda kinda feel that way, that the creative process is such a stretching and a growing thing that I’m always thinking about this process and how it [will be different] the next time around. And you don’t want to have a sense of, “Oh, everything’s done, there goes all my creativity.”

Are there any themes that you’ve talked about this time that you want to keep going with?

Yeah, definitely.  Because of everything that’s going on in America, I want to continue to explore themes of black history, and culture, and presence, That’s something I want to be intentional about. Issues of justice in general have always been a theme in a lot of my work. Just because of this moment in time.

But then also more specifically even in that, the concept of loving your enemy has been so heavy on my heart because there’s been so much division. And rightfully and understandably so. I’m not about “Kum by Ya”, can’t we all just get along. I’m like, nah: these fools are my enemies. A lot of things people are doing and saying in my country right now, I am pointing out, that they are my enemy, they are my enemy. The things they are promoting, the things they are speaking are evil and anti-black and anti-peace. And so just being in a context of, “Okay, I have to recognize these folks as enemies, so what does it  mean in this modern context to generally love my enemies?” That’s a difficult thing to think through, what that means.

Here’s the last question I want to ask you: this moment in American history is fascinating and scary. But in the sense we and my friends, who are white guys raised in Canada, are starting to be more aware of what that means and what the identity of the white evangelical has been through that journey. So whether it’s films like 13th, or your work, or Propaganda, or Sho Barka, these guys are coming into our lives and really waking us up.

But as Canadians, it can very easily be the temptation to look down and cast judgment, or even sit back and wait for the fireworks to begin. Because our history and our identity are so different. And yet the sin of racism applies to all of us. So I’m curious: you’ve spent some time in Canada. What would you say to people like myself who are maybe waking up to these themes, but who are white and are not American?

I think Canadians - and I say this with all respect - but I think they are very blind to their prejudice. Because on the surface level they don't have the same ugly history - although they definitely have some of it towards the indigenous people and the First Nations - like especially towards black folks and immigrants. You guys are a lot more welcoming of immigrants and you don’t have the history of slavery. So there seems to be this superficial, “We love people and especially more than Americans do. I mean look at those people down there!” But, particularly within the realm of theology, Canada is just as bad as America and doesn't realize it.

Because without realizing what Evangelical Christianity has been, particularly white evangelical Christianity… I have that’s about walking up to prejudice in the church. One of the things that comes up… I went to Bible college, and it was a predominantly white Bible college, and I was talking to one of my buddies who was Jamaican, a black dude, and he was like, “This is hard, because I come from an all-black community to this all-white community.” And he goes, “My roommates are white and my professors are white.” But then he said something that stuck with me and I’ve been thinking about it [still], years later. “Even all of the authors of the textbooks we use, they were all white.”

And a couple years after BIble college I was thinking about that conversation, and I realized that - because of Bible college I developed a love of theology and philosophy - and I had the realization that every single book of theology and philosophy that I had ever read was written by a white male. And I thought to myself - how ridiculous is that? The church of Christ is so broad. And yet when it came to my thoughts about God, theology, and the things I’m learning have all been taught to me by one slender slice of the human family and one slender slice of the body of Christ.

And the thing is in most evangelical circles that’s true of both our literature and our teaching in church. Most of the time churches are pastored by white males and leadership is predominantly white male. And so the books we read, the leadership, but then also the songs. Like most songs sung by churches are by Hillsong or Bethel Music, or [other] white contempary Christian music artists and worship leaders. Again, you are missing out on such a rich history. I say it like this because people tell me, “Why should this matter if we are all preaching the same Gospel.” [And I say]: because all of us, our cultural experiences inform our perspectives. And I’m not saying white guys don’t have good things to say.  I’m not saying that. But [compare] a white guy talking about a concept of freedom, verses reading the literature of a black American slave who is writing or singing about freedom. Because of the Gospel, that takes on a whole different and deeper meaning.

In that same sermon I talk about how I had the chance to go to Hong Kong [where] I listened to a Filipino woman, who taught at a seminary in the Philippines, talk about prayer. And the thing is, she wasn't the most articulate or the best person I’ve ever heard speak on prayer; however, she was the most Asian. She talked about how in the DNA, in the roots of Asian culture across the board, they have practices like meditation, like yoga, like tea time, like they are used to sitting in silence and listening to God. So when their ancient cultural practices that are known in their ancient culture come in context with the gospel of Christ [it results in] something beautiful and particular. No matter how intelligent a white guy it is teaching me about prayer, he does not have that cultural lens.

And this is apart from the church and even in culture. I [ask] folks: what is white privilege? [And they respond} “What do you mean? You guys can eat at the same restaurants and go to the same schools.”  Look, especially with Barack Obama becoming president, it [has] almost annoyed me, not because of his politics but because, for a lot of people in America, for them it was the symbolic end of racism. “Look, you can no longer complain because a black person is holding the highest office. Look, he’s made it.”  And obviously, the election of Donald Trump has proved that otherwise. But at the time, it was like, “Look, we’ve made it.”

And I say no, listen: Obama is a freckle on the white face of American politics. You need to look at not just the presidency, but you like at Congress, and you look at Senate and not just politics either. Look at any major institution in America. Look at big business, look at higher education, look at medicine. You rise to the top and you look at positions of power and influence in any pillar of society and overwhelmingly, by and large, it it is white and male. Even if people were not intentionally skewing the policy to benefit their own people group, when you have such a drastic imbalance it is going to naturally affect [society]. Imagine… American politicians [are, say], 90% white and male. Imagine it it was 90% Latino women. Now, tell me that would not have an effect on the policies [on which] America is run? Or black women. Or Asian men. If it were 90% Asian men in that position of power, things would change even if they weren’t on purpose trying to affect their people group.

So that happens in culture, and Canada is the same way. You might have a diverse group of folks, but in the pillars of society, who holds the position of power, who has the money and the influence? It’s white dudes. And in the church in Canada a lot of your theological resources are the same that Americans use. Don’t get me wrong. I love Charles Spurgon. I love C.S. Lewis. I love A.W. Tozer. I love all these old white guys. They have taught me a lot. But man, I’ve been missing out on the black and Asian and Polynesian, and female theologians, and philosophers, and poets. I don’t even know who they are.

So for me, two years ago I started on a journey where I wanted at least the books I read to reflect the diversity. I want the books I read to reflect the diversity of the whole body of Christ and have influence from all of it. So I haven't read a book by a white guy in two years and I don’t plan on [doing so] any time soon. And it’s not all been theology: some, but I’ve read phisophy, I’ve read poetry books, I’ve read theology. And it has brought such a balance. So I think the Canadian church does’t realize that what [we are] interpreting as orthodox Christian theology is really white male theology. That’s all it is. That has a place, but it is not the place. It’s held up as [the normal].

I was just in Vancouver and I was talking to a guy who is Korean and he had a multiethnic church. His church is full of Koreans and Chinese and Japanese and Indians, but most of them are Asian even though they come form all these different cultures. And then they have a few white folks and black folks as well. He [told me that ] people will walk into his church and say, oh, this is an Asian church. But if you walk in to a predominately white church and there’s just a few minorities, you wouldn't say, “That’s a European church.” You’d say, “That's just church.” So that idea that white theology is not white theology, it’s just theology and then you have African theology and Asian theology, it’s not… it's European White theology, which is not bad. But it is not the standard. And that is the problem. The problem is that its’s been treated like the standard.

So when you talk about Christian history, most people are just talking about Europe. [Even though] Christianity did not just start in Europe, but spread through South Sahara and Asia and the Coptic church in the Ethiopian area is just as old as any European tradition, and you talk about Christianity in Latin American countries. We don’t talk about that.

And it’s the same thing in high school. When you are studying history, you are really studying European history because Sub-Sahara Africa has a whole history that we don’t talk about until the slave trade, because that’s when European feel into Africa. And you don't talk about Chaina at all, unless it’s the Great Wall. But you spend all these different times talking about European history and the industrial revolution. So what’s seen as world history [is actually} white history, and it’s the same thing with theology. What’s seen as orthodox theology is from Europeans and their descendants. That’s white Christian theology. That becomes destructive when it’s seen as the standard, when, if it’s approached correctly, it could be seen as a beautiful contribution to the body of Christ if it has its place

And a lot of times when i talk about this, folks are like, “Oh man…” Like one of my friends said, “iIsn’t that reverse racism to not read books by white people?” No. Because for the first 20 or so  years of my life, I know all about that. Not to say I have nothing to learn, but it would take three more lifetimes to bring any type of balance. It’s like, by the time I die I guarantee you I will still have read more books by white culture, even if I never read another book by a white person. Because I don’t have 20 years to spend reading only Asian women and then only 20 years to spend reading only Latino men. It would take the rest of my life to bring any type of balance to this.

But just for me, when it comes to the books I read. But still, when I go around and travel and go to church's and meet people and watch movies, still white folks control a lot of the things that get the most exposure. So anyway, what I found in Canada that people don’t realize that. It’s like, ya’ll folks is white washed just like any other place in North American and Western European countries. You don’t read South American theologians and Asian theologians, you only read the white guys.

Well, thank you for your time. A lot of this applies to my life.

It’s very encouraging to hear, specifically how the blues album has meant so much to you. It was an experiment. I didn't know what was going to happen, so it’s cool to hear how much it’s affecting you.

It seeps into my life and makes a difference.

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An Interview with Propaganda

Spoken word poet, hip-hop artist, and activist Propaganda has long been one of my favorite humans. Through a bizarre and dream-coming-true set of circumstances, I had the chance to interview him for 20 minutes.

Christ and Pop Culture is one of my favourite websites and it has been a goal of mine to write for them. They published my interview, and even paid me for my writing. It was the first time I've been paid for my writing!

Enjoy the interview on their website. And enjoy the cool artwork my friend Seth T. Hahne drew for the piece. 

https://christandpopculture.com/an-interview-with-propaganda/ 

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Wesley Randolph Eader: Full Interview

Wesley Randolph Eader's songs have become a fixture of my community's repertoire of hymns. He is a genuine old school songwriter living in our late modern age. To learn more about his faith community, his songwriting habits, and how his life has influenced the texture of his songs, I traveled to Portland to meet with Wesley.

That interview became an essay published by Mockingbird. If you are new to Wesley's music, I suggest starting there. But since my conversation with Wesley was so enjoyable, and since I spent far too many hours transcribing the whole thing, I'm posting the entire interview here. It has been edited for clarification. 

 

Wesley suggested that we meet at a small brewery mere steps away from his house. Over Ruben sandwiches and red ales, we talked at length about his life and his creative process.

I came back from Portland after hearing you sing Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me at Door of Hope and I thought man, this song is describing all of things I'm going through. So I looked it up, thinking maybe someone at the church wrote the song, knowing its reputation. And I just listened to the whole record again and again, especially after Tim Mackie recommended it.

Yeah, that song is... I feel like that's the one that most people comment on.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think on that record it is the most personal. I think on that record, a lot of those songs I was trying to not be a part of them. I don't know if I was conscious of it or not. But I mean, a lot of them were modelled off of folk music. I think of folk music as telling a story about something other than yourself Of course, yourself bleeds into them, but...

They are stories.

Yeah, and I think gospel music is that way too. I think there's a lot of gospel music that isn't  super personal, [you know]?

Yeah, more declarative.

Yeah, gospel is supposed to besomething that everybody - at least within the body of believers - can connect with, you know? And I think sometimes a personal song can do that, but you have to be more careful.

The songs are completely personal, but I think that wasn't what I was thinking of when I was writing [Oh Perfect Love]. There's that one and... the two that, on that record, [where] I think I was really trying to write a hymn, [where] that one and 'To Christ the Ransom Sinners Run'.

Yeah, that song sounds like something John Newton would have written.

Yeah, it think [it's because] there is no chorus. The idea of a chorus came later for a lot of hymns. I think that came with gospel revivals in the US more, where it was about getting people to sing at tent revivals and stuff. But I think a lot of the classic hymns didn't have refrains, just a strong verse and melody,

They told a story.

Yeah.

I remember I came home from Portland, and I was hanging out with my family and I said "I don't have any energy to tell about my trip, but you've got to listen to this guy." I played your music and got emotional over it, being really tired. They all said "we've got to introduce these songs to our church!" Then we realized we were already singing Victory in the Lamb. So my band leader and I started to play it more and more.

That's cool! Yeah, Victory in the Lamb is the first one I wrote that sort of started the gospel songs.

Why do you think that one gets so much attention?

I think it has a strong medley that sounds like something that already exists. I mean, that's the hard thing with folk music: melodies. I am not a trained musician, in the sense that my melodies - I don't know how to describe it - they aren't very well thought out. At least, in the process of writing they may change. But it's very much based on the way the words line up.

Okay, so you write the words first, and then the melodies.

Yeah. I think I find the melody within the words. It comes from... I write poetry too and I read a lot of poetry. I think it's that side of it. But in Victory in the Lamb all the verses sort of line up with the beatitudes really, if you look at it. I actually had three more verses to complete them all, but it was too long. So it's kinda, in some ways, a rewording of that kind of stuff.

But a huge impact on writing gospel music was [when] some friends and I started going to Burnside Bridge here in Portland, handing out coffee and hot chocolate to homeless people and singing gospel music down there. Me, and Liz Vice, and my friend Laki, and those kind of people.  We were singing all the same songs and I was like "I think I can write them" and sort of started writing them. It was a good place to test them out. If all of my fiends like it and those people, then... I don't know. It was funny. It was cool too.

So that and The Jesus House.

Yeah, the house I was living at. I think it was all really connected and Door of Hope... I don't know if I want to call it a golden [age], but I bet a lot of people who were going there [at the time]... It felt, felt like a really new, really unique place. And it still is. But I think there are so many people for whom this was their second... for some people it was either their first or their second chance at church. [They previously] hadn't felt like church was for them and what not.

Our church also has that core group of people who became believers around that time or really found their faith and got a footing in their faith. A similar age group, really. And then they go on and have kids and that's the church that comes around that.

Yeah! So that was a big aspect of writing those songs.

So you were born in Mississippi?

I was born in Oregon, actually, but my whole family is from Tennessee. And as a child I would visit there a lot. My parents are very Southern, both Tennessee raised. My dad's a Southern Baptist minister.

Is your song, Country Preacher, about him?

It's sort of basically his story. [How he was] adopted as a child from Germany by his parents in Tennessee, and the story of his becoming a minister. They came out here basically to pastor a church in Kalama, Washington, which is where I mostly grew up. But my Dad was in charge of a tent revival of Southwest Washington and Oregon. He would have a whole huge truck with a tent in the back, and I would go with him. As a kid it was the best thing ever. Going to like this country place, setting up tents. It's not something everyone would experience, especially not [in the] North West. [Which is] kind of interesting . So I think there's a bit of old time religion thing to my upbringing.

That's something you seem to celebrate in your music, in the sense that your music bears that sort of sound. But from what I've picked up, the theology of your songs would probably be different from what you grew up with. Do you look back at those old times and what your Dad did with a certain distance?

I do. I think it [might be] one of those things that I have a love and hate sort of relationship with, [you know]? Because it's so much a part of who I am, but [also] part of my upbringing that I'm not proud of, [which] I want to distance [myself] from.

Like what?

I just think the pressures of morality as a young kid. [The] really impressionistic things that are told to you. I think just the guilt complex that you come out with. I think that's why Victory in the Lamp is such a powerful song, because I think there's a lot of people in the church that deal with that guilt complex. Which is totally an unbiblical thing. We're supposed to live... like we should feel guilty when we are actually legitimately sinning against God and against other people, but we are also... we are covered.

Right. Understanding the freedom that comes from that. Here's the guilt. Place the guilt where it should be, and now be where you are.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Did you come to faith through that environment? Because you moved to Portland, when?

I moved to Portland about 8 years ago. [Portland] is not too far from where I lived. I lived about 30 minutes away, but it's a much different place. I'm from a small town, you know. But I'd say I was culturally a Christian for my whole life. I'd say I had a real awakening and took it a lot more seriously when I was 20 or so.

How old are you now?

I'm 29.

Okay. So that was just before you came to Portland.

Uh, yeah. [So my awakening] was probably in the middle of college or whatever.

So Door of Hope was a pretty big part of these last eight years.

Yeah! I had [previously] been going to the same church my whole life. My dad's a pastor, my parents [were] very much the centre of that congregation for so long. I was helping out teaching kids and youth for some time. And I was like "I need to get to place where I am being fed." I encountered Door of Hope visiting once, and I met somebody there who needed a roommate. I was already thinking of moving to Portland, so it sort of worked out. And I got immersed in a pretty amazing group of people.

And that was that prayer room?

Yeah, that was about a year after I moved. We got a house in southeast Portland together, like five guys. And it just so happened that the next house, which was [by] an identical architect - the architecture had the exact same layout and everything. But this house next door [had] also five guys from Door of Hope. It felt like a summer camp for a whole year.

Was that helpful?

Oh it was good. It was definitely a lifestyle that wasn't sustainable. There was also... Portland was still at this point where [the] "Keep Portland Weird" was so prevalent still. You'd see tall bikes everywhere, hula hoopers in all the parks. Just the hippie vibe was still strong still, which I think has lessened a little bit. You were at the service this morning?

Yeah.

You heard Miranda, the missionary, talk about Door of Hope's reach?

Yeah!

It's crazy! The people she's staying with in Nepal listen to Tim and Josh.

Yeah! And of course The Bible Project is extending this. I first heard of Door of Hope primarily through Josh Garrels and then through him I heard about The Bible Project and then it circled back to Door of Hope.

It's an interesting place.

Has it become a weird place to be as a church, as you are almost becoming a celebrity church in a way?

I think that probably accounts for a good [portion] of our Sunday attendance. Probably like  20-30 percent are visitors these days, Which I think is cool. I think it's cool to have a church to go to when you're visiting a place. It's always good to be reminded that there are people gathering, you know?

Yeah! Even seeing the people streaming forward for communion. And I've seen how God works through the sermons and the music in my own life. I remember when I came to Portland last year I was really struggling with some things and both sermons from the two churches I went to were talking about that same thing! God's working through this, you know? That's really encouraging.

Yeah, yeah.

So what is Door of Hope's role in your life, specifically as an artist? Do they disciple you in your art?

I would say no. I would say maybe indirectly. Just [because of] the fact that I lead there once a month, I've grown a lot as far as playing in bands. I typically play by myself a lot around town. I think the songs I write lend themselves to a more... like the lyrics really standing out. That's the kind of the stuff I try to write. [For] my album release show I'm going to have a full band, so that will be fun. I'm fairly... I keep to myself a lot. I'm a little introverted. I think I would just rather not have to structure [my] music stuff around four or five other people. For me, the art form is more in the writing of songs than [the] playing them. But I'm definitely learning and coming to the reality that touring and stuff is a huge part of making a living as musician.

Do you do music full time?

Not currently. I actually work at Powell's [City of Books]. Yeah, when you asked if I like to read?  I work there part time. So I take home a lot of books. I read a lot.

What are your favourite books?

Oh man.

It's a tough question. C.S. Lewis said that the books you re-read show that you are a good reader. But I haven't re-read a lot of books. I'm just trying to get through the stuff that I want to get through.

I think that's the challenge. You're challenged with all these amazing books, and we have more access then ever before, Like, we see lists of all the books that you must read. And it's like, how many of these books can I get through? But the book I've read the most... A book I've read six times in the last three years...

Okay, so you're a reader. You qualify, according to Lewis.

Well, that's just because this book is so good. It's The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Conner. Such a good novel. It was her last novel. Read Wise Blood or The Violent Bear It Away. They are incredible books. But I've also recently read a George Saunders. He wrote some more short stories, a contemporary writer. Kinda a Kurt Vonnegut mixed with a... sort of a little bit more serious. They are very bizarre stories about people living in a weird United States [in which] corporations have taken over, that kind of a thing.

It's interesting that you mention short stories as a songwriter...

I think that's why I like short stories. I think a lot of songwriters approach writing songs as short stories, just even shorter. And in some ways it's like getting a story across in 4 or 5 verses. John Steinbeck was really angry at Woody Guthrie when he wrote The Ballad of Tom Joe, because he just retold the entire Grapes of Wrath in a four minute song.

I read East of Eden for the first time this year.

Oh man.

Man!

It's a beautiful book, especially if you like nature imagery, or people. I haven't read a Steinbeck book in about three years. I've got to try and pick one up again. He has a little novella called To a God Unknown, it's a really early good one. It has a lot of Christ imagery in it, which is I think why I really like it. It's about a guy who becomes really obsessed with the land.... it's an interesting book. He has an obsession with this oak tree in front of his house. It's like a hundred pages, but it was good.

My favourite book I read last year was Cry the Beloved Country.

I haven't read that. I know about it. Was it Alan Paton?

Exactly. It was the best audio book I've ever listened too. It's a very Christian book too.

Interesting. Have you ever read anything by Graham Green?

My cousin did his Master's degree in Graham Green. I tried getting into it, but I did read Endo's Silence, which is very influenced by Graham Green.

Really? Read The Power and the Glory. I couldn't put it down. I mean, it's a super Christian book too. I mean, the main character is an alcoholic priest, who's sort of on the run doing road masses to small villages, risking his life, but also an alcoholic. It's a really good picture...it raises questions on the complexity of God's grace and who we sort of feel like is fit to receive God's grace.

That's Silence too. Very similar. I highly recommend Makoto Fujimura's recent book on Silence.

They are piping in some good tunes [at this brewery]. Stacey's Mom [is playing right now]!

What are you listening to these days?

Oh man. I haven't sat down with a record in along time, to be honest. Which kinda bums me out. While driving around sometimes I've listened to a lot of the Deeper Well records, to be honest. Cory Dauber's is the last one to be put out and it's really good. He was another guy who lived next door to me, but he's one of my good friends and super talented.

 You've mentioned the music influences on some of your records and I've picked up some of the influences on this new album, like an early Dylan on some of the songs. Some of my musician friends don't actually listen to that much music, which kinda surprises me. Do you listen to music as part of that process?

I do. I collect a lot of old folk and bluegrass, old time country records. So I listen to those. I think I... it takes like a lot of convincing [for me] to get behind a more contemporary artist a lot of times. I don't know why. I'm always skeptical and I don't necessarily like that about myself. Because I think over the last year I've actually... I think I've tried to get rid of those preconceived notions. I listened to The Cactus Blossoms, they put out their first record on Red House Records. But they sound like... they're two brothers that have an amazing country harmony and sound like The Louvin Brothers or The Everly Brothers. Their songwriting also fits into the 1950s stuff, country stuff, like a little poppy. Like, not a lot of depth to the songs, but beautiful music.

I find that contemporary, whether music or books... There's so much richness to the past and what's been done in the past that I've never touched. I'm just getting into Bob Dylan's and he's now one of my favourite artists. There's so much there that I haven't touched.  So that bias you have isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least you're listening to the old stuff. It's usually the other way round!

Yeah. I think I really see more.... I think I like finding artists that feel like they are further away from sort of the music marketing mentality. It feels like older folk [music] was written out of a really genuine place. I think that's something that I find lacking in modern music.

And I mention [the] sort of the personal songs, you know, that come from a place... like almost a first person sort of thing. I see a lot more... think I like the idea of writing songs that are separate from me, you know. I think my next... I have a good batch of tunes that I'm getting ready for another record, that I think take the sort of the storytelling that's in [Highway Winds], to a little bit more... Like almost every song has a character that's it's centred [around]. [Highway Winds is] a good mixture, there are some personal songs, but it's almost half and half.

Whether that character is yourself or Eliza.

Yeah, and Country Preacher. Carry On Down the Road is like almost five little tiny stories. Big Steam Wheel is also a story one.

Where did you get those stories from?

Hey, I don't know. I'd like to think I'm influenced by revisiting sort of my home town, [revisiting] my visits to Tennessee and other places. And I think also just [the] stuff I read. And I think I like thinking about myself as a little bit of a tradition bearer. Folk music is what I listen to. Bluegrass all the time. Blues. So I really write, [or] try to write in that tradition to some level.

You also bring back stuff one hardly hears nowadays. Like the talking blues, right?

The talking blues are fun! I have a number of them. And I have this idea down the road of putting out 10 of them on a record. I almost have enough. I have the ideas, I just need to sit and write them. I think it's a song form that is underrated.

I had never really heard of it until I popped on Dylan's first Bootleg record, The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3.

Yeah, Dylan did a few good ones. World War III Blues was his one that was actually on his second record I think. But then Woodie Guthrie did a bunch of them. I'm sure he wasn't the first one to do it. I don't know who was. But Folkways, the Smithsonian label, put out a whole talking blues anthology.

Are they all very humorous?

Usually. I mean, it's talking. It sort of... the joke starts off on a humorous note. It's like, "I thought this was a song. Why are you talking?" But I think a lot of them, though, are able to talk about more social issues that, because... I think humour has a way of talking about more stuff then serious [music] would.

Well sure, Even in your talking blues song, you pick up some of those things, the tension in yourself. I mean, you're critiquing the consumerism but you are also picking up those themes in yourself and your solution of just shopping online.

Yeah. I'm sort of commenting on the craziness of corporate consuming, but also sort of... I don't know. Yeah, I like to think the character in it is not a perfect person to be critiquing it. At the same time...

That's the fun. You're critiquing Wal-Mart, but then you are ordering things online. A little bit of hypocrisy.

Yeah, yeah!

I listened to Bob Dylan's Talkin' Bear Picnic Massacre Blues and shared it with my family, with whom I never share music with. And lines from the song have become household colloquialisms.So I had to play your talking blues song for my family. And my dad burst out laughing at the Alice's Restaurant line.

I love when people get that reference. Usually old people get a good laugh, cause they know that reference.

What's great is that there is the reference joke and then there is the joke right after ("darn, they got her too"). So no matter if you know the reference or not, it's a funny line on both occasions.

Yeah, yeah.

Do you have a favourite poet?

I think I do. I really like Richard Hugo. He's a poet from Montana. I connect with a lot of his imagery.

When you talk about the hymn writing process, it's fascinating because what struck me the first time is that the words you are using to describe these things - "Adam's shadow it was casted, how it covered all the land" - are just fantastic. You're putting theology into poetry. Is there a process that you use to do that? What goes on your mind when you are taking doctrine and applying imagination to it?

I don't know, man. I'm really conscious of being overly poetic when it comes to theology,  because I don't want to say something that is misleading. I actually had one of the churches singing my one of my songs message me about it and said they had posted something [about my song] on their website, including the lyrics. So I went to their website and I think they transcribed [the song] just based on listening, so they had got some of the words wrong. And in my mind it was changing the meaning to a lot of it, [you know]?  They wanted to share the lyrics with their congregation. But then I saw that a lot of the words were not what I was singing. Little words, like articles, that seemed so insignificant but they actually changed the meaning of it.

I wish I had the email, but it was enough where I was like, "that's saying something that I don't think is biblical." I think just from listening to my recordings some of the words I sing are difficult to hear correctly. [But the church was] super appreciative. I sent an email saying, "hey, I love that you are using my song and singing it it, but I just wanted to say that these words are not correct and here's why." And they were like, "oh yeah."

But when I think when I write gospel songs, which i think are a lot harder to write than any other songs...

...Because they are taking truth and making it poetry?

Yeah, and you just run into so many cliches and so many recycled things that have been done in a lot of modern music. That I think, frankly, just lends itself to being a really lazy writer. Which happens in so [much] contemporary Christian music, is that they just settle for the easy lines, you know?

Yeah. How do you avoid that?

I think I just know about it. (Laughs.) I don't know. I write something and [I realize] that [it's] not good enough. So I don't write it. I wait until I come up with something that, to me, sounds like something that's powerful. I don't know. It's... I feel like... I feel like it's a hard place to get to, in being simple. Because I think you loose a lot when you make something more complicated than it needs to be, especially with gospel music. Yeah. I mean, it's funny because those songs I wrote... I wrote that whole album in a two month period. Like all those songs, plus a few more that I didn't record. And they just sort of came to me because... I think I was at a place spiritually where I was, um, I don't know, very in tune with what God had been doing in my life and [amongst] the people around me. I don't know. I can't really speak too much about turning the theological into [the] poetic. It's something that... I think it comes from [the fact that] I think more like a poet because I read a lot of [poetry]. Like you mentioned the Adam's shadow imagery and I think that's... I don't know. I guess I just think of Adam in the garden, like maybe... I don't know.... like, obviously shadows always existed, but I think it is this interesting idea that this darkness falls as soon as they fell in sin.

So... it sounds like you are immersed in poetry, but you are also immersed in theology and the life of the church. You're not trying to be clever.

Yeah! I think I also just have a sense of, like hymnody and the history of that, because I grew up singing [them].

Right, so that kind of the rhythm is in your head.

Yeah! And I think my reason for not writing gospel music sooner in my life was that we have all these amazing hymns, but the new stuff [that] people are writing is so much lesser, you know?

Definitely! Well, you mentioned that you are singing all these songs and you got to the point where you ran out of songs to sing, so you had to create something new.

Yeah! And that came with going down to the bridge with the homeless people. We need more songs to sing. Yeah, I mean, I'm waiting to get back to the place of writing gospel music like that again. I think it's difficult. Two years ago there was an interview in Rolling Stone with Bob Dylan when his album Tempest came out.

In 2012?

2012. Yeah, it was when my record [Of Old it Was Recorded] came out. Times fly!

Tempest is a great record.

No, it's an amazing record. But in that interview he said... I think the interviewer asked him something like "was Tempest the record you set out to make, that [you] wanted to make?" And he was like "no, I actually wanted to make a religious album." And they asked the question "like songs that are on your album Slow Train?" And he's like, "no, more songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee." And he's like "Those are way too hard to write. It's way too hard to write 10 songs in that vein." So I'm like, I think there's some truth to that.

It's because... I think if you are a song writer, and you have a high standard of what a song is, I think it's harder to write gospel music. Because I think one of the standards of being a good songwriter is writing something that hasn't been heard before, and with gospel it's like... you know. Familiarity breads contempt.

[And it's the] same thing we deal with in our lives as Christians. We get too familiar and the gospel doesn't ring as true to us anymore. Because we've heard it. And that's when it comes down to discipline and choices and actual level of faith. Not based on a feeling or experience, but based, like, in a deep belief and discipline that "I'm going to, you know, push into this and I'm going to believe that the scriptures are true when I approach them, even though in just the past 20 days I haven't felt anything strong."

I think that's the challenge with writing gospel music. For me, [it's] like there's so much stuff that sounds too familiar. Like, I don't need to say that again. But, that's the Gospel. At the same time, it's something that doesn't return void. The same message can be proclaimed and it can change people, like the same way it changed all of us. But, yeah, so that's why I'm like... I don't know. I've tried to force myself to write gospel songs, like "I'm going to sit down and write one." And, like it doesn't always work out, but I think it... yeah.... I don't know.

And it sounds like, because your standard of doctrine and the church is so high you don't want to feed the church poor quality doctrine, because they are learning through your songs.

Yeah.

It's funny that you talk about familiarity. Because since I grew up Christian, I find it easy to remain unchallenged hen reading the Gospels. But it was your song He Loves Them So that helped. I was listening to that and was struck anew and was reminded of the childhood Jesus that I knew growing up.

Nice. That's interesting. My mentality for that song was [to make] a song for children.

Are there things that as an artist you struggle with specifically, that the church has helped you address? For my, my sense of identity and success gets caught up very quickly in my art.

I think from the very beginning of doing Door of Hope, [our lead pastor] Josh [White] - who is also an amazing songwriter, who I think is a good example in a lot of ways. And I think it was hearing his songs that like... because I wasn't writing gospel music at the time I [had] started coming to Door of Hope. And I think it was Josh at the time that like [encouraged me]. Maybe I can try my hand at this, and I had [previously] sort of thought that [it] was not a possibility.

But he's always - in his sermons I think he's always addresses artists a lot, because he knows they are such a central point of Portland, [as is] sort of the artist's mentality. [He addresses] sort of that idolatry of art that can occur, that there is more to life than trying to make it as an artist or as a musician. I think that's sort of, for me, a message that has kept me in check a lot of times. Like what are [other] priorities here? Why am I creating, why am I writing songs? It's one of those things that can easily become a motive of a gospel singer, you know?

I think it's just a motive of attention, maybe? I think that's something you run into leading worship at church. Trying not to be focused on yourself and your gifts. [In leading worship], you have a place of notoriety in the church. I don't know. It's interesting balancing being a Christian and being an artist. Because I think the church at large, the evangelical church, wants to tell us that our gifts are only valid if they are being a blatant witness to nonbelievers, you know? Which I don't think is true. I think, for me, there's more power in doing your creative work well and not mentioning Jesus at all in it. I think that the world is more looking for good art to come from the church. They are not looking for...

A message.

Yeah, because that's been done. And I as an artist, I put a clear line between... Like, when I write gospel songs I have the mentality of that these songs are more oriented [to] a Christian congregation than they are as being a tool for witness. Like church music. And I think that's why I like to differentiate my gospel music as church music rather than folk music or whatever. Like, obviously there is going to be crossover at some level. I think if you were listening intently to [Highway Winds} you would come to the conclusion that I'm somebody who believes in a higher power, if not more. But I think they are definitely spiritual songs.

It's an interesting thing [and] I think [it] was one of the reasons that it took me a while to release another record. Because all these people know me as...and I say all these people knowing [that my fan base is pretty small], like just my friends and people that have come...

...To have listened to your music.

Yeah, have come to know my gospel songs, but I like I wasn't... I could have put a non-gospel album out before my gospel album, [but] because [the gospel songs] just happened to come to me and and things lined up with Deeper Well. Eric [Earley] was like "I want to record a record for you" and I was like "sweet". So it's sort of an interesting thing. [But] it's something that I... when I started writing songs I didn't want to put like myself in a box as a quote-unquote "Christian Musician" you know? But it's funny that God gave me all of these songs and they are clearly having some sort of an impact on peoples' lives and people [are] finding value from them to be used [and] to be sung in congregational worship, and... I don't know.

I was talking to someone about how I think there is a cultural context to gospel music and folk music, you know? I think if you look at any of the folk traditions in the United States, like there is gospel music somewhere there. Whether it is blue or bluegrass, if it is country of if it is rock and roll. Like, the foundation of a lot of songs in the US are gospel centred. So I don't know.

I love the fact that you're doing both church music and this new music... Do you have a word for this new music? Would you call it secular?

Not secular. I would just say it's folk music. And in an ideal world, where some of these marketing labels wouldn't exists, it would just all be folk music.

Totally. And you go back far enough in music history and you find that being the case. You'll find folk albums that consist entirely of gospel lyrics.

Yeah. But I think we live in a time where language, in a lot of people's minds, requires labels for those things. I'm a little bit strategic in how I label my music, you know? Like "church music". I prefer that label [over] worship music. Because I think worship music isolates the act of worship in the idea of singing, when I think worship is so much more than that. Like certainly [singing is] a big part of it, in why we meet together [as] a church congregation. It's a biblical thing, too. But I think it's difficult when worship is so much based on the music that churches are producing on Sunday mornings. And I just don't think that... like you can flip on your iPad and listen to a worship song. And that is some people's way of worshiping, and I think that's a valid way of doing it. But I think there [are] way more intentional and challenging ways that I think worship plays out in lives. And I think, there [have been] some periods in my life where I've turned to gospel music to feed my soul, you know? But I think to become dependent on [the] experience you get from listening to a song [can, be damaging, I think] on your spiritual life. Because that's not always going to be there. There's more to it. So that's why I feel like church music is [the] phrase that I choose.

It encompasses the life of the church.

Yeah, and I think there [are] songs that I think are meant for the church and I sing some of these songs in bars and stuff when I play out. And I think it's cool. And I think - I hope - my folk songs get me into places that normally wouldn't play that stuff.

The brewery is playing Paul Simon right now. I really enjoyed seeing Paul Simon live this year.

How is his voice holding up?

He had a cold when he performed, but it was just fine. Interviewers kept remarking on how well it's held up over time, compared to, say, Leonard Coen. Coen just talks on his songs now.

Sort of like Dylan too.

Yeah. Although I like Dylan's older voice!

I do too.

But Paul Simon can still do the falsetto.

I like Leonard Coen too. He relies more on his backup singers

And his songwriting skills. And his character: this grizzled, distinguished man.

That's the other interesting thing with songwriting: sometimes your limitations can actually be your benefit. Like, I think of super talented vocalists. Most of the best songwriters are not the super talented vocalists. Because they had to rely on something else. They had to rely on the writing, because they couldn't get by [otherwise]

Versus vocalists who can rely on the showmanship or just the beauty of their voice.

Yeah. And I think [their] songs can get too complicated [in] the melodies, because they range [so far].

Right. And then in a worship context, it gets hard to sing.

I've been asked before, or I've been told that it seems that people sing along really easily with my songs and some people have asked me why that is. I think a lot of it is that the melodies are simple; they don't move around much.

There are examples of songwriters with both amazing vocal ranges and excellent song writing skills, like Bono.

Oh certainly!

Have you ever read Francis Schaeffer's little book Art and the Bible?

I actually have. The little tiny one? It's really cool.

In that book, he talks about the major and minor themes of Christian art. He says that for Christians creating art in the context of a biblical worldview, there should two themes that should come out. There is the minor theme, which is the fallenness of life, the pointlessness that comes from that, and even in the Christian life the defeated nature, the sinfulness. But you also have the major theme, which is that is that there is hope. God is real. Salvation has come and there's a future hope coming. And he says that to remove the minor theme would be false to life and to the gospel. And a lot of Christian art does that. And there are times when it is appropriate to be in the minor theme the whole time. But all in all, we should end up in the major theme, because that's where our hope is. But both have to be present

 I was thinking about how your first record is very major themed. There are minor themes there that come out, but it's overwhelmingly a very hope-filled, comforting album. But in Highway Winds, I get the feel that there is more minor, that even though there are hope filled bits and humour and encouragement, there's a lot of sadness and disappointment and sorrow.

I would think that you have it figured out. I think that it's interesting that Of Old It Was Recorded was such a... like you described it as a joy-filled kind of album.

The joy comes out of it and it's an album that you to give people who are depressed. And I have other friends who have done the same thing. Friends who have lost jobs and who have listened to Oh Perfect Love again and again. And another friend who had to move cities for a job and who told me that listened to I'm Going to Rest in Jesus on repeat during that process.

That's neat. Well, yeah. I mean, I think if you were to hear the majority of the songs I've written, [you'd notice that] they are more filled with sadness than they are with hope and joy.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think I've been often labeled a realist. I've been labeled a sort of pessimist as well. I don't know. I think that it's interesting that God [has] used me to write the songs on that first record, because I'm somebody who's a little bit more in tuned with the sadder side of life.

But it comes out. It's there. It's a realist's album, but a faith real.

Yeah! And I think our job as Christians is not to just say "Jesus loves you and everything is going to be all right, you'll be happy and go to the carnival."

...That we are hosting for VBS. Come on down.

Yeah, yeah! It's much deeper than that. I guess that's the minor key. It's just as much of a gospel act to present a fallen world to people and what that looks like then it is to present heaven or whatever. I think in the gospel there are the two sides of the coin. There's heaven and there's earth.

And there's hell.

Yeah. I guess it would be three sides to the coin. It's not a coin actually. It's some sort of other thing. It's a Trinitarian coin.

I don't know. I mean, I know a lot of reasons why there are sad songs on [the new record]. Things I went though personally while writing some of that stuff. Right when I put out that first record - like literally right after it, I think the release show was postponed because of it - I had two collapsed lungs. One, and then two months later a second time, so it was like two 10 day stints in the hospital. Where I was like "I don't know what's going on with me", and I had to have lung surgery. And I was in the middle of that, and I felt like... the overwhelmingness of life and the struggle and trying to make sense of things. I think [that] comes out on the record, and I really turned to music and songwriting as something to get me through that. And it wasn't gospel songwriting, but trying to tell stories about fictional characters that I had made up or that were probably more a picture of me than I might even know. So I don't know. That played a big aspect on that record.

In the essay you talked about how even the gospel songs were written for personal reflecting and understanding and confirmation of God's grace. So this is the like flip side. You're processing whatever's going on in your life, whether that's spiritual or earthly.

Yeah, yeah. I think songwriting is ultimately a personal act. I wouldn't know how to write a song with somebody else. I guess I've never really tried to much. It [would] be an interesting thing. I can't even write a song if anybody [else] is in the house, if I know anybody is. Like my best, ideal time to write a song is when I know I'm going to be alone for 4 hours in my house.

And you have to have three candles lit.

Haha. Right now if I had candles in my room there's so much paper I'd probably burn everything down.

Songwriting is loud. It's not like writing a short story or something. You got to be able to sing. I don't like people being all up in my process. I like to keep that to myself a lot. Like, I'll talk about it later. I think if I were to actually lay out, you know, [the] minute by minute of my songwriting process, most of it would be embarrassing to me, you know? [It includes] a lot of stuff that seems, to me, really strange.

Like what?

Like singing the most inaudible things. Or singing whatever word, the same word that has come to my mind, which is usually, like, I don't know, like something I wouldn't think would just be on my mind, you know? Like the same couple of words or whatever. Maybe as I'm trying to get a melody or something going. It's sort of like an awkward old car, that won't start almost.

Because a lot of the songs on the new album have this kind of... It's almost like you're looking back on mistakes, regrets, disappointments and you're reckoning with them and you're sad about them, but there's also a hope. You're dealing with them. But it's encouraging to listen to that. Because I'm 23 now and all of a sudden I realize that life is full of regrets. So how do I process that? Hearing some of your songs and how you process that, makes me realize that it's okay to be sad about the waste of time, but it's also... You can't linger over it, but yet you can write a song about it, so it's okay to have to process it.

Yeah. I don't know. I think my songs are not... I think a lot of them are about somebody that's not me, but somebody that's dealing with some things that I've gone through on some level, you know?

So it's less personal?

I think so. In some ways. But it's also me trying to find the universal theme in humanity. I think that's something I've always been good at. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to meet them where they are at. And realizing that the stuff I'm going through other people have gone through, or [that] other people have gone through worse. So I think for me it's like writing a song or like coming up with a story of some kind is about... I think analyzing my own situation in life but also taking into account that there [are] a lot of different people out there you know?

How do you do that? It's easy to recognize yourself or it's easy to look at others. But that's interesting that you are keeping both in mind.

Yeah I don't know. It's something I see after the fact a lot of times. Like, in the process of writing I'm like... I don't know where that came from, you know? I write a lot of my songs based on coming up with the title first. I don't know if that's something a lot of others people do. You'll notice that of the tiles in my record, almost all of the titles are in the songs. Usually [as] the refrain or they're in some part of the song that's significant.

I think that is more of a folk music thing in a lot of ways. I think a lot of modern music is trying to find a title that isn't even related to [the song]. I talk to a lot of people that don't like titling their stuff anything in the song, that [it is] almost like one of those weird 80's action movie cliches where at some point in the movie the hero has to say the tile. Some people view it like that! But to me, once I know that there's a title to the song I know the song is going to be worth something, almost. Like this title sort of wraps up what the song is going to be, in some way.

I was looking at the first song, which is very much dealing with depression or even suicide.

Big Steam Wheel. Yeah.

Then there's a contrast with the next one, Carry On Down the Road. Are they hinged?

That was a little bit deliberate, the way I placed those.

But they both complement each other quite well.

Well, Big Steam Wheel is supposed to be the perspective of a ship captain who's sort of spent his days going up and down the Mississippi and [is sort of not really feeling like there is anywhere] else for him to be, like he has given a shot at not working or working somewhere else. But it's him sort of contemplating that he's worked so many years [and] what has he gotten out of it, what is his life like, you know? And I think that's something that so many... I mean anybody who's spent time working encounters that, you know? Especially if they are working for someone else's gain, for whatever reason. It's a very Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastical - is that a word? My housemate Lacki call is it an Ecclesiastes song.

The Teacher's Song.

I think that it comes down to me as a believer, how I'm not afraid to try to encounter the fallenness of the world. Scripture has things like Ecclesiastes, things like Lamentations, things like Job. Where it's dealing with the real intense things and that's like... If the scriptures are not all just hopeful, happy, Jesus-is-going-to-give-you-a-hug kind of thing and there's that side of it, why are we as artists and creatives... Why are we supposed to only be presenting sentimental and happy things, you know?

It's interesting how listening to this gives me permission to process my own feelings and experiences that align with the songs. Why am I carrying on? Why do I? What's the Devil saying to me to stop me from doing that? Well, all of a sudden now that these feelings have been spoken about in a song, especially coming from someone who has also written such profound hymns, I can see that somebody else is dealing with this. That this is part of life. And that these experiences have influenced your church music. Because I then listen to the hymns and go - oh, okay - these truths are not just philosophy, they are lived out of the "real life music." The two go together.

Yeah! Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. I appreciate that statement because it took me a while too come to a point to think that the next record I put out was going to be this and not another gospel record, And I think [what you said is] what ultimately made me realize that these songs are just as important as the other songs. I [had] thought that, but...

My experience with believers is, I think, [that] there is a line drawn [between] Christian music and non Christian music. But I felt like if there were people into my music [who] were listening and [who] were maybe songwriters themselves or artists themselves and [if] were to hear my fist record and my second record and were to come to a conclusion like you said... I'm almost like, if I feel like it's okay to write not to just gospel songs but songs that are portraying more of a fallen world, if that inspires other people to do that too, that's awesome. Maybe I should put this stuff out because I think that line needs to be taken away.

That's my opinion and I think people who are writing Christian music need to write it for the church. I don't think they need to be writing it for radio or for whatever. I think church music has historically been funded by the church to be used in the church, you know? And I think that's something cool that Deeper Well is doing in a sense, We're doing it in a modern way.

Amongst a modern system.

I think Deeper Well is able to sort of take down the motivation to make money off of music. Josh Garrels too. It's an interesting thing, that if there's going to be a music that has to be free, I feel that it is gospel music.

Like Humble Beast's philosophy.

Yeah, and I'm obviously for artists making a living. I'm trying to do that myself. But I think, for me I wouldn't have made a gospel record if I was going to sell it. When I found out it was just to be a non-profit thing, it [became] an opportunity for me to be using gifts for the church.

Obviously, I love the idea of Christians creating art. And even understanding why unbelievers can create art of value, being made in the image of God. But when you put out a Gospel record, it's easy to justify it because you are showing Christ. But when you put out a more subtle, less explicit album that shows the gospel in more subtle, worldview rooted ways... Is that kind of music a witness? How do you just trust that to do its thing?

Hmm. Yeah. I don't approach a song as... maybe I should be doing this. I don't approach it as a chance to evangelize. I feel that soon as that enters my mind the song won't be any good.

Yeah, that Schaeffer quote about how "a Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God."

Yeah. I don't know. Let me think about that. I don't know.

Well, here's another question. I know that when a church like Capital Hill introduces a new song, the leadership critiques the song, ensuring that it speaks truth and is suited for the church. And if I were to write a song for my church, I would bring that song to my pastors and ask if it were true.

Yeah, is this teaching true?

Right. The song is going to have a lasting effect on those who sing it. So is this good teaching? Does this line up? Now, when you are writing folk songs, you are still teaching, you are showing forth your doctrine. But, I feel like as a church disciple, being discipled by a church in my art, I don't necessarily bring it to the church. If you were a bricklayer, you wouldn't going to ask the church for advice on the quality of your bricklaying. But once you are teaching...

There's more risk involved [in my music], I guess, of leading people in wrong direction.

Yeah! And songs are more powerful than stories, even. Stories are sneaky, music is sneaky, it gets into your head.

Yeah. I think there are songs [that] I've written that I've choose not to sing because of those reasons. I don't know if this [song] is benefiting anybody. [It's] just dwelling on pure sadness, like, presenting a character that has no redeeming quality. The thing is, I don't write too many of those songs because I believe in redemption. I think redemption always usually comes through, even if it's like a song about... whatever,  somebody who has committed some crime that they shouldn't be redeemed from. I think the gospel offers that redemption.

Yeah, I think, with the gospel music that's presenting itself as gospel music for the church, that's the one that has a standard. You have some standard you have to live up to. And I think there's certainly Christian music that is passing as Christian music that is doing more to lead people astray than [certain] secular music [is]. Whether it's almost a prosperity brand of the gospel or whether it's giving a false representation of...

...of trials?

Yeah, you know? I think half truths are dangerous. And I think there's a lot of Christian music that's doing that. I don't know. Not to mention just what they are doing as far as culturally for the church. Like, as far as digging us [into] a deeper hole, into a lack of inspiration, showing the world that we just aren't creative people. We're supposed to be image bearers. But I don't know.

I really want to talk about your song Eliza (Saint of Flower Mountain).

That's the oldest song that's on there, actually.

Really! I think it's the best song on the record.

Thanks, man. It's also the most spiritual song out of them all.

You think through it and you realize that it is. But it's also one of the more physical songs. It talks about her eyes and her hair. And it's a very sad song.

It is sad. A lot of people tell me they cry on that one. It's good that it comes across on the recording. That was one of the hardest songs to record on the [album]. It's the one I'm the most conscious of. It's a song that had been around for so long and so many people had requested it when I play. And I think there's something special about that song. And that I think it, it presents sort of the cost... the Bonhoeffer book, The Cost of Discipleship.

Where did you get the story from?

It's funny. I think this is good picture of where you can get inspiration from for a song. I was just hunting around on the internet, reading old accounts of missionaries.

You couldn't find enough good stories at Powell's? Had to go on the internet?

Haha. Yeah, I mean...  I can't remember if I came up with the chorus and I thought "this is a good chorus I need something to go with this." I can't remember the order of how things came, but I basically found some missionary... I don't know.... I can't find it again. It's like one of those things when you are 20 links in off of a Google search and you're like "I don't know where I am." And I was reading about an account of a missionary who was killed. I think it was [around the] turn of the century, like 1900s, in a place in China called Flower Mountain. Which is was where the flower mountain [title] came from. And I was like that's an amazing name for a mountain and an interesting place for someone to be martyred, I guess.

It inspires a lot of different thoughts.

Yeah. I sort of just, I don't think.... I had also just sort of had a relationship that ended based on somebody choosing to sort of go elsewhere for mission work, [at] some point in my life and so that...it's an interesting...

It's interesting then that you choose to tell it from her perspective rather than his perspective

Yeah. I don't know. I think... I don't remember the process of writing it. But it was actually, the main thing that started the song was the guitar picking.

The melody of it?

Well, I finger picked a melody and it sort of just fit. I think also the rhyming of the name with the rest of the stuff in the chorus. I guess "Eliza" rhymed well with "eyes." "Eliza had eyes like..." It kinda sounding like it was repeating the same thing. And that sort of set me on a melody that sounded nice. But that kinda goes back to where words have a lot of melody in them. And especially when it comes to rhyming...

It's one of those songs where the words and music pierce the heart together. It reminds me very much of He Loves Me So, with that minor chord that pierces you each time you hear it. But you say that it's the melody of the words that brings that out?

I guess. I think I was just coming to a point where I was getting more confident in my picking on the guitar, so I was writing more songs based on that. I could pick melodies out. So that allowed me to write a little bit more based on melodies [rather] than off lyrics. There's also only two minor songs on that whole record, the first song and that one. I don't tend to write a lot of minor keys songs. I tend to stick to a major key; you know, the three-chord-country type folk songs. Because I think the minor key can be overused, for me. I think it's...I think my songs already tend to be on the sad side of things, [so if i make the music that way] I tend to, it tends to be too much.

I also find it's easy to be lazy with minor songs, because they are so beautiful already.

Yeah, yeah. I don't think there's a single minor song on [Of Old It Was Recorded], expect for To Christ The Ransom Sinners Run. Yeah. I don't write too much in the minor. I tend to... the first instrument I picked up actually was the banjo and I played more kind of claw hammer, which lends itself to more minor stuff. So I really like that stuff.

When was that? When did you start making music?

I started when I was... let's see... I think I was 20. I didn't pick up an instrument to write on until I was 20. I played trumpet in middle school. That was it.

Why did you pick it up the banjo?

I don't know. I think I was bored living in a small town. My younger sister was playing guitar at the time and I was like "if my sister can do it, I can do it." Since she was playing the guitar, I wanted to pick up something different. I took a couple lessons on banjo with the most rednecked guy I think I've ever met. He taught me a couple of lessons in Longview, Washington, and he had chickens running in and out of his house while we were playing. And it smelled terrible and he had a plethora of crude banjo jokes about, like playing banjo while being on the toilet. The  classic like, "this is why the banjo [has a reputation for] being such a rednecked instrument." And he was teaching me stuff I already knew on my own. And I think that made me reconsider the guitar. And I also just realized that the guitar was a way better songwriting instrument. I think the six strings just lends itself to strumming more.

I sing Eliza while at work. It haunts you.

People tell me that one has a tendency of getting stuck in their head. A friend of mine, they just had a kid named Elijah. They tell me that they reworded it to Elijah [and they sing it to him] as a bedtime lullaby.

At this point, the brewery was closing for the night. Wesley invited me over to his home, a couple houses down. We spent another hour with his housemate Laki, discussing Laki's creative projects and the creative community in Portland.

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A Conversation with Odd Thomas

In August of 2015, I had the incredible opportunity to visit Humble Beast's studio in Portland, Oregon. The visit was a huge encouragement to me personally and I wrote about what I saw and heard here. My conversation with Thomas "Odd Thomas" Terry, spread out over a car ride and a rapid meal in a Lebanese restaurant, was so helpful I've included it here, with the hope that it would benefit others as much as it did me.

There was an interview where one of you guys described what you do as neo hymn writing…

Aha.

And that’s really what it’s been for me; lyrics, beautiful in their own way, that are bringing me back to being discipled and the greater reality. An example would be the end of your song Beautiful Eulogy where Braille says “Until then I’ll remain where you have me/ with joy when I feel unhappy/ with a peace that surpasses all my understanding/ my life is in the hands of your love everlasting.” This last year in midst of many trails and disappointments that line has been a mantra that I kept holding up there.

Yeah.

And through such different artists too. Jackie Hill Perry and the way she brings me back to joy. 

Mhm.

And where’s that joy found and how do you fight for your joy…

Yeah. 

Against the joy thief. And obviously Propaganda and how he’s almost a prophet…

Yeah. 

…for our culture. Even your song, Exit Dial Tone, talking about how do you interact with the culture… 

Oh, yeah yeah.

and the fact that all this music is based out of a church and this is a church ministry doing creative gospel-centred work is… remarkable. You’re giving away your music because you’re giving away the gospel, putting your all into it, your excellence into it. How then does that impact you as an artist, with your ego, with creating work? Does that change the way you produce and create?

In all transparency, anytime you’re doing art that is indigenous to the individual and putting it on display for the world to listen to and critique, you always have to fight your pride and perception, the way people perceive you, your affirmation, you always have to…so I don’t think it’s something that you...

…Avoid by giving it away.

Yeah, I think giving it away is one avenue to remain faithful, and I guess driven, and feel that you are actually fulfilling what God has called you to do, but the pride and all that stuff and trying, sometimes slipping, into finding your self-worth, and dignity, and value in the artistry is something that I think every artist has to wrestle with—I don’t know many people who have kinda conquered that.

(With relief) Right.

It’s a constant day by day thing, like man, where am I at? How is this impacting me? So for the artist who's figured that out, I would like to talk with that person. But I think that there is a responsibility to constantly approach God with your art and with your talents and say, “God, search me and expose the areas of my life where new areas of pride because of artistry has popped up, or I’ve believed things that are untrue, or I've believed things that are exaggerated about myself.” You know those kind of things. I don’t think its special, I think everyone has to wrestle with those things, but art just tends to put it on display more. 

It doesn’t matter what your doing, whether its music or writing or photography…

Yeah! 

your vindication should be through Christ but you want to be validated by your work.

Yeah, so I mean some people find their identity in how good of a father they are. Some people find their identity in how great of a student they are. So I think the temptation is universal. And so it’s a constant revisiting, like, where are you at, asking God to search your heart, asking God to excavate it from you, take it away, to cause for you to believe the truth that God is the person that you should be aiming to please with all of your gifts and talents and resources. But yeah, it’s a hard thing man. 

Do you find that when you pray that, it hurts later? Have there been times when you've been broken that way? 

Well yes, particularly when people around you that are close to you expose your sin and God uses the people in your community to reveal to you that you’re an idiot and you need to be more like Jesus, that’s… never like a happy place, right? 

No. 

I mean it is in the long haul because you know that God is using it to refine you, but in the moment it’s…you have to wrestle with all that stuff like, dang I suck, I’m horrible, I’m not worth doing ministry, why am I even doing this, and then the pendulum swings to the opposite side, right? You find all your dignity and value and worth in your artistry — then God exposes your sin and you’re like, oh, I’m basically crap. 

Mhm. 

You know, and so it’s a constant, it’s a belief issue. It’s a belief that God is greater than you and a belief that God loves you, right where you are. 

It’s encouraging that you keep fighting it though. That you haven’t even broken that pride, because it’s something that God’s been breaking in me this last year—through many circumstances. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who hasn’t conquered it. 

Well yeah, I think its prideful for people to say they’ve overcome pride. 

So that discipleship of being under the church, what’s it like doing ministry under that umbrella of the church?

It’s safer. I mean… I’m trying to think of another way to describe it. I think it is safer. I think it’s healthy, I think especially when it comes to the art side of ministry, because in a sense you put your art and skill on display for ministry, (gets excited here) so in a sense there is a sort of exaltation, right, just by virtue of the fact that I’m doing this, I’m putting my art on display so I’m exalting my art, even if it’s for the sake of ministry. So I think doing it from the parameters of the church gives you some perimeters to remind you — even though you’re amplifying your art, really, the underlining theme is exalting Jesus through the art, and I think the church helps to keep that balance. 

Yes, you notice so many faith based art institutes, maybe it’s out East, maybe it’s in Seattle, and they slide on the gospel so easily, becoming ecumenical or not orthodox

Yeah.

So the church as being the perimeters, what you’re in, the safety net. 

Yeah, and I think too a lot of churches in the contemporary setting almost put an overemphasis on art? And engaging the culture with art. I think one of the things the church does is the church should, if it’s a healthy church, give you a good balance, reminding you that you are just one of many people within the church, you are one part of the body. That we don’t elevate you because you’re an artist over and against the person who is not artistically bent but is serving the body in an equally important role. 

Yes! 

You know?

They’re not hero worshiping you.

Does your role as an elder at Trinity have anything to do with your work at Humble Beast?

No, it’s completely separate. Well, there’s one side, because all of us— except for J [JGivens], because he lives in Las Vagas —all of us attend Trinity, so as an elder I’m interfacing with brothers from the congregation at Humble Beast. But in another sense the ministry stuff at the church is exclusive to the church, not so much with Humble Beast. 

So you’re more there as that shepherding, overarching role. I’m curious what the relationship is between Trinity and Humble Beast. 

Humble Beast submits under Trinity in terms of its leadership, doctrine, kinda spiritual protection. But we are autonomous in that we make business decisions on our own, things of that nature. But when it comes to issues we come across, we approach the other elders and ask for council, wisdom, and insight. So if someone wanted a statement saying “Is Humble Beast a ministry of Trinity?” then Trinity would send a letter and say “no, it’s not.”

Humble Beast isn’t mentioned on Trinity’s website.

Yeah… so when we bring people on to the label I talk to Art and I tell him, “Okay, this is a person that we’re thinking about, we’ve talked to him about his theological framework.” Usually I introduce Art to folks on the label, and there’s a relationship there. The church prays for us constantly, even within the church services they pray for us.

So that’s acknowledged. You guys are in hip hop, that’s your roots, that’s what you do. Do you find that when you see this model, which I don’t see a lot of, is there other opportunities for churches with other art-based ministries? 

We… I don’t see why other churches couldn’t do it. But when we come to Trinity we don’t necessarily come with our hip hop burden and say “do something with our hip-hop.” We basically just serve in our church.

You do what you do and you come to your church saying, we’re doing this. Can you give us your protection as a church? 

Yeah. I don’t there’s ever really any opportunity where we’re rapping in our church. We’ve done some poetry stuff, if it makes sense and appropriate for worship, but… 

When you spoke earlier of the having the church oversight really keeping you humble and accountable, I’m wondering if artists and other organizations that are doing this, if that’s a model they should do more of. 

Yeah, I think if you are an artists that’s making music as a distinctively Christian ministry—because you can be distinctly Christian and not have a ministry bend to your music, like a Christian writing love songs—but if you have a ministry bend in your music, than I think it’s essential that you are plugged into a local church first and foremost. That way you’re not, autonomous, or on your own, left field, just making decisions.

Because that’s something that as someone who loves art I tend to see a lot of Christian artists that slip into lack of doctrine when doing art. 

Does the church encourage you? I find as an artist I need encouragement and I need warning. Do you find that they encourage you in producing art? 

I don’t think the encouragement is so much like “hey, go do art, we want to encourage you.” I think there’s affirmation from the ministry side of things, in that they see that art is just a tool or a vehicle to be effective in ministry, so there’s encouragement in that regard. They encourage us to keep on, they encourage through prayer, and support our efforts and things of that nature but I think that it’s much more practical than we’re artists and they are the church. We are members of the church that have a particular vocation that has a ministry bent.

Same as if your talents were in construction and you ran an outreach ministry that builds houses.

Yeah so there’s more of a support there from a personal ministry, but they also do support Humble Beast and pray for us. What I’m trying to do is make a distinction that we’re not these artists that have come into the church and have said “Here’s what we do; support what we do.” We are artists who've found that in order for us to be effective we need to submit to a local church. This applies to practical ministry too. We stack chairs, we serve coffee, we participate in the liturgy, we just do what normal people do in church service, and do ministry with Humble Beast independently. But are still kind of under this pastoral care, which is a challenge to me now that I’m one of the pastors. It’s kind of a weird dynamic in that, because I’m an elder at the church but I also submit to the church with Humble Beast, so it’s, it’s… 

Which is a good thing!

 Yeah, yeah, it’s healthy, it’s healthy. 

I think that’s what makes your example so inspiring. How long have you been doing music full time?

I started when I was about 18 years old doing it full time, until I was about 25, than I took a long time off and started a multimedia company. I did that for about 7 years before I started Humble Beast. Then I sold that company and then started doing music again vocationally soon after I launched Humble Beast. 

I’m curious about moments when you’re an artist, making music, sweating blood and tears into that, but you’re also doing church, taking care of your family and your church family, and you’re also working to put food on the table. Did you learn things from that period?

Yeah, well one of those things is not making crazy distinctions. I don’t look at it like this now is ministry to my church, this is ministry for my music, and now for my family. All of it’s ministry, it’s just balancing time. They all kind of work and are interconnected. So there’s a sense where Humble Beast has always been a discipleship vehicle, I yet from the church’s perspective I disciple people from the church

It’s holistic.

Yes. Discipleship is helping your family, serving your family, training them up in godliness. A lot of people compartmentalize ministry so much that they have these really rigid lines, really tight boarders. I just don’t do that, I find it more helpful in more fluid lines, although not everybody has to do that. My vocation is my ministry hat, particular to what I do.

They flow into each other. You’re on you way to an elder meeting right now which is keeping you tight for time, but you’re serving the church just as you serve the music.

Yes, and the Humble Beast guys are all members of the church so my service to them is also an extension…it’s just it’s hard to replicate, you know and it’s so intertwined., Some people treat ministry like waffles, where they put syrup in little squares. Some people have ministry like spaghetti where it is all tangled in and that is where my life is. 

I’m looking into ministry but also seeing that in my church almost all the pastors are bi-vocational, either they have had a past career, or they are farming, or teaching, or full time teachers. And I appreciate it so much. They are not sequestered, there is a grit to it, a sense of reality. I think, in my area of the world we are going to see more of this. So I am wondering how one finds a career that will sustain ministry. 

In a sense my ministry at Humble Beast and at the church is all bi-vocational, where I don’t get paid for any that. I only get paid for Beautiful Eulogy. So I love the idea of bi-vocational ministry. But I also think there is a benefit for people who are paid by the church and can focus on teaching.

We need those figures.

Yeah.

What are some ways I can pray and the work you’re doing. Other than more time to eat!

Pray that God would help continue to sustain our ministry.

Financially? 

Yeah. We have a lot of transitions and stuff that we’re going through now.

The recent changing the roaster, some of Left Coffee’s opportunities...

Yeah.

That doors would open? You know what you want to do, you just want to have the means to do it? 

Yeah, exactly. 

Well, it’s definitely been used, in my life, so thank you. 

Amen. Praise God. 

And it’s neat to see how it’s used in my world, which is in the context of the church. It’s not just this music is happening and therefore discipleship is happening. It’s that discipleship is happening provoked, not just by the music. It is provoked by the church and life, and your music builds me up, gives me something to grasp onto, sometimes to even hang onto even.

Thanks so much for the chat and all you do. It’s appreciated. 

Absolutely. Good to meet you, brother.

 Thomas (on the right), talks to his labelmate, JGivens (on the left), discussing plans for an upcoming music video.

Thomas (on the right), talks to his labelmate, JGivens (on the left), discussing plans for an upcoming music video.

An Interview with Tim Mackie of The Bible Project

In August 2015 I got to spend a day at The Bible Project’s studios in Portland, Oregon. I wrote an essay describing that experience and if you are looking for an introductory read on The Bible Project, I recommend starting there. During my visit I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tim Mackie, pastor of Door of Hope church, professor at Western Seminary, and co-creator of The Bible Project. We talked for over 45 minutes and only some of that made it into the essay. The entire conversation was so insightful I’m publishing the whole thing, edited for clarity, so that other fans of the project can listen in and learn with me.

Because it’s a long interview, I’ve divided it into 6 sections: Tim’s Journey and the Story of the Bible Project, Portland’s Unique Church Landscape, Doctrinal Balance and Discipling Artists, The Visual Approach of Their Videos and Their Intended Context, What’s Next for The Bible Project, and Bi-vocational Ministry and Other Advice. I’m very thankful for Tim’s interest in my questions and his time. I hope you find his responses as clarifying and encouraging as I have.

 

1. Tim’s Journey and the Story of the Bible Project

A lot of it is wrapped up in my story. I grew up in East Portland, just a mile away from here. I became a Christian through an outreach ministry to skateboarders. A church had built a skatepark in its backlot and people could come and skate, paying $2 and skating for the whole night. It would be open from 6-9 p.m., but they’d close the park down at 8:30 p.m. and one of the staff would give a Jesus talk. If you wanted to skate the second half of the night, you would have to sit through the talk. It was cool, everybody respected it. So I went to that for years and years through my teens, and then became a Christian when I was almost 20.

I got involved, started teaching Bible studies for the junior high, and I was like “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” So across the street is the largest Christian college here in the city, called Multnomah University, at the time Multnomah Bible College. Jon and I met there. I started going to school and became a Bible geek. I fell in love with all things Bible. 

That’s where you met Jon.

We lived at the intern house and that’s how our friendship began.

That’s right. I was interning at the skate ministry and so was Jon. We lived at the intern house and that’s how our friendship began. Then I went to Western Seminary here in Portland, and from there shipped off to the Midwest to do a PhD in Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin.  My Hebrew teacher at Multnomah had gone there to head the program. It was a great, great program.

Was it a Masters and a PhD?

That’s right, a combined degree, 7 years. And I loved it. I loved it and learned a lot. I had a year in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University there.

Is that where a lot of your Hebrew and Jewish elements comes in?

Yes. I was fluent in reading Hebrew by the time I went, but for me this was a whole journey of discovering Jesus’ Jewish identity. I just fell in love with Hebrew scriptures and… the whole deal. I’m just a Bible Geek! No two ways about it. 

But as I was finishing my degree, about 2 years prior to finishing I started doing student teaching at the university, teaching classes. And I… didn’t like it. 

Really!

And I realized that for me, the Bible is a living thing and the whole point about why I care about this thing is the way that it shapes people and communities for the Kingdom of God.

Yeah! I didn’t like the environment. I loved the university environment but I found that the students I was teaching just didn’t care. The courses were required Judaism or religion classes. And I realized that for me, the Bible is a living thing and the whole point about why I care about this thing is the way that it shapes people and communities for the Kingdom of God. 

So I thought, “Okay. That was a good learning experience. I’m going to finish the degree and then figure out a way to bridge my passion for the Bible and learning the Bible as an artifact of history, but also as a living Word to God’s people. I need to find a way to bridge those two worlds." So I stayed in Wisconsin and came on staff as a pastor of the church we were attending. I just began by teaching Sunday school classes, and then started tutoring the senior pastor Hebrew! He wanted to resurrect his Hebrew, and then he invited me to start preaching. That came pretty naturally and then they brought me on as a pastor. 

We moved back to Portland 4 years ago, because my family is here and my wife Jessica’s family is in Seattle. I came back to Portland with a 3/4 time role at Door of Hope. It was a young, 2 year old church that was meeting about two blocks from where I grew up.

Wow.

It has since moved locations. When I arrived, I was their second pastor. I wanted an experience of what it’s like to be at the ground floor of a church. I wondered, is any of that church leader guy in me? And I discovered that it’s not. (Laughs.) I’m definitely a teacher and I love being an elder, but as far as actually building teams and running a church… I kind of suck at it. But that’s okay! You learn by failing and doing.

And it’s great that you can have a context where you can excel without doing that.

Yes, that’s exactly right. So when I moved back I thought, “All right. I’m either going to be at Door of Hope and then I’ll teach adjunct at Western Seminary,” which is my alma matter so I have relationships there. That just came out naturally. 

Then Jon and I were hanging out (this was back in Wisconsin when I was planning to move back to Portland) and he pitched me this idea. 

Really!

Then Jon and I were hanging out (this was back in Wisconsin when I was planning to move back to Portland) and he pitched me this idea. “What if we did some Bible theology videos?”

Because he had been making all kinds of videos. “What if we did some Bible theology videos?”

So we started meeting a morning a week in the Fall of 2012. 

Wow. So this goes back much further.

Yeah! And so we worked on Genesis and Heaven and Earth for a year and a half, before we even started making them. 

Were you just developing it?

We were working on the script. Trying to figure it out. We recorded all kinds of stuff, but they were all 20 minutes long. But at a certain point we got some money and threw it at developing storyboards for Genesis Part 1.

Through the church or… ?

Yes, actually we did. Door of Hope has a creative non-profit arm for music called Deeper Well.

I love their stuff!

Yeah, Josh Garrels has done some stuff through them. So we just put it under Deeper Well as “creative video”. Then we just sat and we worked. We were also trying to think of the crowd funding idea and how to build all of that. It was a slow build!

Yeah! But it sounds like you built the groundwork to make the visual style and the form of communication consistent, so you had that in place before you were ready to go.

Yup, that’s true. We were developing the style, everything, and then we just launched the videos and it’s just gained momentum from there. 

That’s exciting!

Door of Hope’s basically been letting me donate a day a week for the last two years.

Yeah! It’s been really fun to watch it. So the way my life’s set up now: I just started half time at The Bible Project back in in April. So it’s new! Prior to that, Door of Hope’s basically been letting me donate a day a week for the last two years.

Okay. So it was under their budget essentially.

Yes. So just in the last couple months have I shifted to part time at Door of Hope and part time here.

 

 

2. Portland’s Unique Church Landscape

I don’t know if this is just a perception that is wrong, but the reason I came to Portland is actually because there is so much creative, gospel, truthful, stuff happening here. 

Yes!

I love the arts, but I find so many creative, faith-based institutions tend to get slippery on the doctrine. But I think of Humble Beast, which I’m visiting tomorrow…

Cool, those guys are great!

It was something significant. It was part of a new wave of younger, more innovative church planters who were really trying to engage the culture of the city.

I think of Josh Garrels and I think of you guys, your church, and The Bible Project… and I don’t think Portland! I’ve always thought of Portland as this West Coast, spiritually vacant place. So, what is it, do you see a common thread tying this together? 

Hmm, yeah that’s interesting… 

Is it the healthy churches?

For sure. To be honest, I think it is a huge piece of it. It’s that Door of Hope is one of a network of churches planted in the core of Portland during the last decade… well more than a decade. Jon’s church, ever since he stepped away from being a pastor, has been Imago Dei, right up the street, which started in 2000. And it was something significant. It was part of a new wave of younger, more innovative church planters who were really trying to engage the culture of the city. 

Okay! Where did that spark from? Was it a Tim Keller thing, were all these churches reformed?

There’s been a whole wave of these churches. It’s unique! I think it’s something the Spirit is doing here in Portland.

No no! It’s very… I mean, it just happened! Rick McKinley planted the church. Rick is adjunct at Multnomah University and Seminary. He runs the D.min of their cultural engagement and church planting program.

Where is Multnomah in terms of their theology?

It’s an orthodox evangelical school. Within the reformed tradition but classic, not neo-reformed. Same as Western Seminary. Western is a very centrist seminary,.

And is Trinity Church of Portland, Art Azurdia’s church, based out of Western?

It’s not. They meet at Western and they use their building. And the guy who started it is also professor there, but it doesn’t represent Western or anything.

Right, got it. The first time I attended my church in Calgary was for a conference and it was Art who was preaching.

No way!

Then about two years later I started going to that church full time. When I started digging into Humble Beast I realized “hey, I know this guy!” 

And among all of us there’s a common focus on discipling people who are engaging, through their careers, the culture of the city.

So that’s one church.

That’s one. But there’s been a whole wave of these churches. It’s really… it’s unique! I think it’s something the Spirit is doing here in Portland. There’s A New Wave, Door of Hope, a church called Bridgetown, Bread and Wine, Evergreen, Theophilus… I could probably name about a dozen, in size ranging from large to medium to small. But there is a collegiality. All of us pastors, we either all went to school together or know each other, from skate church or…

So there is a commonality there.

Yes! We are all friends. And among all of us there’s a common focus on discipling people who are engaging, through their careers, the culture of the city. And so, 15 to 10 years in…

You start to see fruit.

you see the fruit of that and it’s through a business like Epipheo or Sincerely Turman or Humble Beast. I mean the coffee industry in Portland is riddled with really, really committed followers of Jesus.

Really!

Among the main, significant roasters there is a core that are owned or managed by Christians. It’s really interesting. Same with the creative industry. 

Among the main, significant roasters here in Portland there is a core that are owned or managed by Christians. It’s really interesting.

So it’s really about the Gospel taking root… 

Yeah, I think it’s a movement of the Church. 

And then another unique thing is that Luis Palau, who’s a Latin American evangelist (something of a Billy Graham to the developing world), has his headquarters based here in West Portland. His son, Kevin Palau, rallied and became kind of a a spokesman on behalf of the local churches of Portland and approached the Mayor about how the churches can serve the city. 

Oh I heard about this! Redeemer City to City had an interview with him.

That’s right! So that guy, Kevin, has became kind of this convener of the churches of the wider Portland area. And so there’s been a lot of the churches teaming up. So there has just been all these things creating this sense of the Church of Portland that I think is unique. One of the fruits of that is that in Portland there’s a lot happening in the tech, creative, arts, and communication areas. It is a city filled with lots of Christians who are a part of the unique thing that’s happening here. So stuff happens!

There has just been all these things creating this sense of the Church of Portland that I think is unique. One of the fruits of that is that in Portland there’s a lot happening in the tech, creative, arts, and communication areas. It is a city filled with lots of Christians who are a part of the unique thing that’s happening here.

Amazing.

Really! I think it’s kind of unique. So those are all of the various pieces. Josh Garrels is a good example. They moved here because they wanted to become part of Door of Hope and to make this their home base. 

Okay, so they heard of the church.

Yes! I forget exactly, they told me the story. They were going to move here, or to Seattle, or to somewhere in the South - because of family. They had been to Door of Hope and felt that this is where they were supposed to land. Now he’s an elder at Door of Hope! God is doing cool stuff in his life and there is lots of… There’s probably a million things that we can’t even think of that are also happening. 

It’s neat to see the fruit of that Gospel work that is going forth, even in Canada where I am. I’ve been broken by Humble Beast’s music during very dark moments. Same with Josh Garrels. His music has been there at the right time and you can see the fruit of that.

Right! So there you go. As much as I can put in a nutshell that would be part of my response. I really think it’s fruit of the 'Capital C Church' here in Portland.

Wow.

 

 

3. Doctrinal Balance and Discipling Artists 

There are two aspects of that I’m curious about. One is: when you have this greater community of churches, how do they keep their distinctions while still being unified? Were there any sacrifices that were made or things they had to watch for? And then on a similar note, I think of Door of Hope and just the amount of artists that are based there — which has an effect that I feel when I visit. The music is outstanding, the visuals are beautiful, there’s great coffee. But there is also a depth there. I was listening to the song they played on Sunday towards the end and I loved it so I looked up the artist’s music.

Yes, Wesley Randolph Eader!

Yes, Wesley!

Oh, he is insane.

His lyrics are beautiful!

He is a modern John Newton or Isaac Watts. 

He reminds me of Indelible Grace’s music.

He is so good. Yes.

I find it very tricky for people who love the arts to maintain their orthodoxy. It’s often a very slippery slope. 

Yup.

But your church seems to be maintaining it with their artists. So I’m curious; how do you maintain unity in the churches, what sacrifices are made, and then how do you maintain a unity of doctrine and arts as a church?

Well, I can only speak for Door of Hope. Imago has a really big emphasis on discipling artists as a part of their ministry.

Okay, so they are actually discipling them!

Yes, Paul Ramey is their Pastor of Worship Arts, but really he sees his role as the pastor of the artists in their community.

Hmm, so there’s respect. An artist would feel the encouragement, but also be corrected.

Yes. So for every church it’s different. 

At Door of Hope, everything for us revolves around what we call the four pillars and everything we do filters through those. The first one is Gospel, specifically of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Spirt being this central thing. We don’t have many doctrinal distinctive other than classical orthodoxy, We’ve had to make certain distinctions as we go, just around how to operate as a church and leadership stuff. But this approach is true of many these newer wave of churches. We have a real classic evangelical centrist position theologically. 

What happens when contentious issues come up, maybe the role of women in the church?

Our elders came around it, we weighed it all, made a majority decision, formed a paper, and then some people left the church. It’s all just typical church stuff. 

But that’s different than your question around artists maintaining their orthodoxy…

Sorry, those are really two separate questions. I should have split them up but they were formed together! 

No, I hear that. I think that… A healthy church that really is centred around Jesus is always going to call everyone in the community to that centre.

To be discipled.

A healthy church that really is centred around Jesus is always going to call everyone in the community to that centre.

Yeah. Now, I don’t have any illusions that the majority of artists in Portland are even remotely interested in Jesus.

No.

Even though we have a lot at Door of Hope, it’s just a tiny sample. 

But I think of Image Journal (who I respect in many ways). I’m not saying they are not believers, but they don’t have that solid weight and I think discipleship maybe is what comes in. 

Yes. Well, I think it just depends. In terms of what’s happened at Door of Hope with our emphasis on music, it has been a really unique thing. It comes out of the guy who planted the church, Josh White. He’s the other main teaching pastor and he is a musician, so that’s been his thing.

That helps!

And also if he wasn’t a pastor his other career would be interior design, so he's got a thing for aesthetics and design, and it shows, and it’s awesome! He was meant to plant a church in Portland. It was just perfect. 

Of course. He is part and parcel of Portland’s culture.

 

 

4. The Visual Approach of Their Videos and Their Intended Context

I have another question that I’ve been wrestling with as I look at your materials at The Bible Project. Something that my church talks a lot about is that as Christians and Evangelicals, we are people of the Word. The Word is what unites us and the Word is our life. So something that my pastor brings up is how many offshoots in Christianity become quite image centred. You look at Eastern Orthodox streams or even Catholics. And so, coming out of the Reformation, we are people of the Word, even in our Jewish roots. 

So then, think of how our culture used to be word centred (think of the majority of our past’s media and entertainment). But today I would say that about 80% of our media is visual. Our culture communicates in a more visual style. I think that’s one of the secrets to The Bible Project is that you communicate that way too.

Yup.

Do you see a conflict there? How do you maintain a Word-centredness while using a visual language?

That’s a good question.

We’re not trying to replace people’s experience with the Scriptures. I think we are trying to provide a tool that makes them coherent, understandable, and approachable. If anything, one of my goals for the videos is that someone watching them goes, “Oh, I want to go read the book of Genesis!” But at the same time, the Scriptures are united to living church communities that are themselves being shaped by the Scriptures too, so there is that ecclesial element of encountering Scripture within the web of relationships of other disciples. 

We’re not trying to replace people’s experience with the Scriptures. We are trying to provide a tool that makes them coherent, understandable, and approachable.

How do your videos point to that?

We want to make them accessible and easy and that churches would want to adopt and use. 

Okay. So even if you are throwing them up on YouTube for some guy to find all by himself, the intent is for communities to use them.

Totally. They are getting airtime in churches all over the planet. It’s really cool! 

I’m a huge fan of people not trying reading the Bible on their own. I think you can do so, but we only stand to be enriched and helped when we read them in community. So I think the videos are a way of reading the Bible in community and helping give people tools. Nothing replaces a community of disciples learning to follow Jesus, immersing themselves in the scriptures, and being a people of the scriptures. That’s an irreplaceable factor.

It comes back to discipleship, just like with the artists.

Yes, that’s exactly right. So in that sense, we are creating a tool that helps people do what is the most important thing, but it’s also a form of outreach. 

Nothing replaces a community of disciples learning to follow Jesus, immersing themselves in the scriptures, and being a people of the scriptures. That’s an irreplaceable factor.

Oh yes. An amazing form of outreach!

We are trying not to use any Christian lingo in order to make it understandable to anybody.

So you’re not using lingo. What are other approaches that are in the back of your head when you plan these videos that give them such broad culture speak?

Well it’s just… I use the words that I would use to explain it. Laughs. And again, part of that’s my story.  I didn’t grow up with the Bible. I was a young adult really encountering this as new world and was really, really thrown by it. I loved Jesus, but the Bible was challenging for me!  So I had to reconcile myself to it and work with it and I ended up finding it beautiful and amazing.

Challenging in its approach or challenging in its implications?

Oh, challenging in its content! And like why… what is this?

So you’re having that experience at the back of your head as you are planning and teaching.

Yes, just my own journey. What do I do with sacrifice and atonement? What is going on here? How I explain it to myself, alongside everything I’ve learned and read, is then what makes it into the videos. I’m making the videos partly for myself, to use! Or they come from materials I worked out in classes I taught that I’m now putting into videos. And then Jon helps, because he's got that gift of making things concise and boiling it down. So he’s another layer where theological jargon gets removed to make it just very approachable.

When you’re doing a video, whether it’s a theme video or a book video, do you have a certain audience in mind? The other half of that question is when you look at the whole scope of The Bible Project, is there an overarching Gospel or message you are trying to communicate?

I think it depends. Book videos are trying to unpack each book by its own literary design, themes, and message, and then how it fits in to the overarching story. And so that is just what it is. Hence, we don’t mention Jesus unless he is mentioned in the book. I am bringing out a lot of the messianic themes. We haven't yet done that many Old Testament books in the sketchbook series, but when we do that it will become more clear. But even for the Passover video, we bring out elements like the cross and blood dripping down, so those kinds of things.

In as much as the story of the Bible is the story of the Gospel, then yes, every video is unpacking the Gospel from these different angles, as sub-themes throughout the Bible. Whether people realize it or not, we are trying to reframe how the people think about the story of the Bible, how this includes, well…everything!

And the theme videos?

For the theme videos, that’s where the action is. Every one is structured as we run it through the biblical narrative, so the prophets are pointing forward to the messianic kingdom and Jesus’ realization of that kingdom is the pivot. In every video, that’s the pivot. So in as much as the story of the Bible is the story of the Gospel, then yes, every video is unpacking the Gospel from these different angles, as sub-themes throughout the Bible. Those are fun because they are synthetic, big synthesis projects. Whether people realize it or not, we are trying to reframe how the people think about the story of the Bible, how this includes, well… everything! The Bible is pretty encompassing. It is training that will mess with your mind. So those are really fun. To put those concepts into accessible language, I know it is really helpful for me. 

 

 

 5. What’s Next for The Bible Project

I’m thinking about how The Bible Project came together and I see God’s hand at work through the right people, with the right background, at the right time. I see how the church provided a financial and pastoral influence on it. Then obviously, there is the huge stage of planning and just putting a lot of hard work and thought and being very deliberate about it. And now we have the crowd funding element keeping it alive. So when you look at what’s going on here, if you had unlimited resources, time, people, and money, what else would you do? What other potential is there for churches and the body of Christ to do stuff that your doing?

Well, yes, that’s a good question. Right now I’m still a deer in the headlights for what we need to get done by next September!

Is that the deadline?

For this phase of the project, yes. We’ve broken it up; we are going to do every book of the Bible in the sketchbook style by next Fall. We’re going to crank out a theme video every month and a half, we have all those lined up. And then we’re prototyping — actually this week we launched the design phase — a series we are going to do on how to study the bible. It will be a 15 part series with skills in reading different the literary genres, that kind of thing. It think it will be awesome! So, once that phase is done… I mean, we have a lifetime of theme videos we could make. So we’ll just keep turning out those. I want to do a series on the history and the making of the Bible — the cannon, the manuscripts, stuff like that, it’s a big interest of mine. And then Jon wants to do a Holy Land series where we do a hybrid of animation and onsite filming, going to different places.

My dream would be that the channel has just hours and hours and hours of content that is free, that someone could walk away with. Another phase of it would be, not that I want to do this, but creating experiences with the videos and shaping it into a curriculum that is free. Like a free online seminary education. And then that is paired up with the translation phases that Ken has his mind around. Making it all available for free! So that a seminary in, say, Kenya, that doesn’t have a huge library but the videos could be available in Swahili, and they could take pastors through it. You know what I mean? They could read through the Bible in one year, while working through the videos with the interactive materials we would create.

How does that change culturally?

Oh that’s a great question and I have no idea. Laughs. But, I’ve thought about that.

My dream would be that the channel has just hours and hours and hours of content that is free, that someone could walk away with.

But you’re keeping it pretty… it’s just the text. 

Sure. But even the way that I would think about doing it is shaped by the fact that I grew up here. And the questions that I think need answering aren’t necessarily the questions that a Kenyan Christian would need answering. And so… I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m just making them. Narrative is a universal language, there is something there that is universal. And the Bible is universal that way. But there’s probably lots of how we are framing itthat would feel very Western to, say, a Chinese christian. 

Yet it is the story of the Bible. When you look at guys like the folks in EE-TAOW, where they go off to some culture and they learn the culture, but they still tell the narrative of the Bible.

Right, tell the story. Yes, EE-TAOW! I remember that.

 

 

6. Bi-vocational Ministry and Other Advice

Well, thanks so much.

Yeah, Daniel. I think my biggest encouragement is, if biblical theological education is exciting to you, just go for it, man. It’s so fun. And I think the other piece is that if teaching is your passion, the way to get better at it is just to do it, especially if you are given opportunities. I remember when I would teach anything. I would teach a Sunday School class with 8 people in a church in Vancouver if I could get the chance. Doing so also forced me to develop materials. When you can start developing materials, over time you you can morph and adapt and grow and pretty soon you realize, “Holy cow, I could teach a class with this!”

And in fact, that’s where the materials you are using now came from. 

Right. Very little of the content for any of our videos are being made from scratch. It’s almost always adapting something that I’ve done, perhaps a sermon series.

Which keeps the workload a little easer.

There is a value of weaving your life into the culture of the city, but having it overlap with the culture of the church, as opposed to being very separatist or distinct.

That’s true. It’s also born out of its context, which is in the church. 

And you know that it is going to work in terms of teaching.

I don’t know if you’re seeing it here in your context of Portland but something that I’ve seen at Calvary Grace, my church in Calgary, is that a lot of the staff are bi-vocational. And it’s something that I actually really appreciate, having come from a church that wasn’t at all. Because these guys aren’t in the office all day, talking to Christians. They know the trials of life and the struggles. 

My life is very different now than I thought it would have been four years ago. I thought I would have had an English liberal arts degree under my belt, but that’s very expensive now especially with the dollar changing. Now I’ve been working in technology for a while; I’m learning what work is and how to appreciate it, I’m learning about the culture more, and so I’m very thankful for what God done. But also thinking, how I can build skills? Would you see that bi-vocational approach continuing?

That’s interesting. I think it depends on the context. There is just a basic reality to the fact that if you can give more time to thing, then it will benefit from the more time you give to it. But a lot of it is built up in the philosophy of ministry and mission that a particular church would have. So if the value is that we want the personal lives of even our pastoral staff to be as woven into the community… But you have to compensate for that in some way. Because somebody’s got do stuff to make the church operate, even at the basic level. But I think there’s something to it.

For example, the way we’ve done it at Door of Hope is that, myself, Josh, and Evan, we all have significant creative projects on the side, or for me now, half of my job. These projects keep us engaged in our areas of interest. For example, Evan has a band that is quite successful here in Portland and he tours regularly. He just fits that into his life.  He’s full time at the church, but built into that he can take off these weeks and a lot of show time. And half of the people he pulls into his band are musicians in the church, so it’s all connected. There is a value of weaving your life into the culture of the city, but having it overlap with the culture of the church, as opposed to being very separatist or distinct. So that’s another way to do it. Find a way for vocation to overlap inside and outside the church. I think it just depends. I think by-vocational, in many setting, works because of its financial stability! It’s easier to float a church financially that doesn’t need full time employees.

So then in closing, having had this chat, do you have any recommendations in terms of how to do school? Would you do a communications degree at the local place and then do Bible?

I don’t have lot’s of great advice. Everyone is different, depending on the season of life. The game is changing where you can gain skill-sets in lots of different ways outside of the traditional university system, and then if you have job experience and relationships… But there is something in biblical theological education that is irreplaceable; where you have a season of life where you just focus and you get to be be around folks who have done that for a long time. That is rad. It was such a privilege to sit with some of the professors that I did and work with them. That is something that is unique that you can’t get from online courses.

It’s that community we talked about. The discipleship.

Exactly.

It’s been really encouraging to hear your story. God led you down this path and he will do it again, just in different ways. 

That’s exactly right.

 Tim shares with Jon an insight on the book of Proverbs as they prepare the outline for an upcoming video.  You can learn more about this process here.

Tim shares with Jon an insight on the book of Proverbs as they prepare the outline for an upcoming video. You can learn more about this process here.