(Originally published in Phaith Magazine, June 2012)
In this month's column I feel compelled to share a real gem I've discovered recently on the music scene. When I found it, by way of a friend's post on Facebook, I felt like the man in the Gospel parable who stumbled onto a treasure buried in a field. He then went and sold everything he had to purchase the field (Matthew 13:44), though in this case, the field didn't cost a cent. This young singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon, was giving his music away without charge (and still is until the year's end). Yes, sometimes the best things in life are in fact free. His name is Josh Garrels, and the album "Love & War & The Sea in Between."
When I was young (we're talking the 1980's here) I remember Christian music was just debuting. I have to say, my first reaction was... "This is totally cheesy" (We said "totally" a lot in the 80's). Sure, "Jesus is Lord!" was proclaimed in the lyrics, which is fantastic, but the music often felt forced, and a little campy. I've always preferred the tactic of subtlety when it comes to evangelization through art; what C.S. Lewis called "smuggling theology." You are drawn by the enigmatic fragrance of Eternity, then slipping under the radar of your logic and reason is an imperceptible seed. A seed, as it were, that implants itself into your heart and mind and blossoms into a whole new world of understanding, of depth and richness. It becomes an encounter with the Living God. You come like the Pevensie children through the common wardrobe of the familiar and into the great mystery of Narnia! Authentic art, which is our loving meditation on the ordinary, by its very nature speaks of God. His likeness can be found in many shapes, and all things, like rivers, flow from and run back into the Sea of His Being.
Back to Josh Garrels. He is a man who has forged his music deep from within his own heart and experience. It's his soul-craft, and there is a longing in his lyrics that struck an old familiar chord in me. Here was harmony, the perfect marriage of authentic, soul-soaked acoustic hymns and a fiery devotion to Jesus. In the trembling strings, and acoustic riffs, and sometimes pounding beats of his songs, Josh has given God a channel in which to enter the world again. Like a sacramental embrace, the encounter can be, in a certain sense, efficacious. This album takes hold of the heart, creating a longing for God's Mystery like the deer that yearns for running streams.
One of my favorite songs is called Ulysses, an aching hymn that builds and swells then crashes like waves on the heart. Josh taps into that one steady throughout our lives; the sense of the Journey. Questions like "Where have I come from?" and "Where am I going?" burn strong in our younger years, but in all honesty their shadows stretch on, to the grave itself, and beyond. Josh has taken the classic image of Ulysses and matched his heart to it. He is the homo viator, the journeyman, the seeker, who must move, and struggle, for the waters of the world are swelling, and pulling him on.
I'm holding on to hope that one day this could be made right.
For I've been shipwrecked, and left for dead, and I've seen the darkest sights. Everyone I've loved seems like a stranger in the night. But oh my heart still burns, tells me to return, and search the fading light.
He sees a world touched by love but a love too often beset by sorrow, struggle, and tinged with the possibility of loss.
Sirens call my name, they say they'll ease my pain,
then break me on the stones
But true love is the burden that will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known
It's this interior call of the heart and the need for discernment of its desires that appeals to me so much in Garrels' music. He is not afraid to follow it, and hope in it. This fearlessness forms and feeds the driving beat of another song called Beyond the Blue:
Yellow and gold as the new day dawns
Like a virgin unveiled who waited so long
To dance and rejoice and sing her song
And to rest in the arms of a love so strong
No one comes unless they're drawn
By the voice of desire that leads em' along
To the redemption of what went wrong
By the blood that covered the Innocent One
Isn't the modern world in its more vulnerable moments looking for the freedom and fulfillment of this "virgin unveiled who waited so long"? As persons created to be in relationship, we pine for the consummation of love, and this voice of desire can truly lead us to that Love if we let the blood of the Innocent One wash over us! He is the Love that satisfies!
Josh had a radical conversion experience in his 20's and it has truly shaped his music. This is the work of grace, not to take away our passion and personality, as some cartooned pictures of Christianity propose, but grace perfects our personality! An authentic inculturation of the truth of Christ into the human heart naturally creates beautiful art. There is no need for a kind of forcing of Jesus into the mainstream to "evangelize" it. In it, and in all things true and good and beautiful, He already lives, and moves, and has His Being.
I pray you have the chance to listen to this Troubadour of Beauty. I think it'll be well worth your time. It's not a question of money. Remember, this album is as free as God's grace, and carries much grace with it!