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Monday, May 23, 2011

I Love Matt Papa

I was thinking that this post should be filed under the category of "Cory Reviews Media That's Been Around Long Enough That All the Reviews Should Have Been Written Already."  (Aside 1: I would consider making this a post label, but it's too long.  Aside 2: If you check out my book reviews, you see that almost all of them fall into this category.  See also here.  Aside 3: Wait for my review of Jaroslav Pelikan's 5-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, published 1971-89.)  That's because I'm about to ramble about Matt Papa's 2008 worship album Your Kingdom Come.

But then I discovered on the artist's website, which calls the release "the new album," that I wasn't so late after all, because Papa hasn't released another full-length work since entering Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as Your Kingdom Come was being completed.

It figures.  I've been listening to this album at least every other day for several weeks and I don't see signs of it letting up.  What makes it fun is great musicianship.  But what keeps me coming back is how every song is soaked in Scripture.  Biblical phrases abound in the lyrics.  They proliferate so naturally in Papa's songs that one gets the impression that he isn't trying to make Scriptural songs at all; it's just that he himself is so soaked in Scripture that it can't help but infuse his music.

Other elements of the album grip me deep within as well, including the fascinating interplay between Papa's hard-rocking, modern style and his conscious commitment to the historic Church through the ages.  I can't remember any contemporary Christian tune employing part of that ancient liturgical staple, the Gloria Patri (specifically the part, "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen"), as Papa's "Alive" does.  "Alive" itself is a good example both of Papa's cleverness and his good theology.  The tune begins with eighth-note chords in the upper range of the piano accompanied by sleigh bells, and the first words are, "Bells are ringing, children singing."  Christmas song, right?  Wrong—this is an Easter hymn: the words continue, "Christ is risen, Christ is risen."

Another example of Papa's knowledge of church history, as well as his musicianship, is the unexpected insertion before his song "Prepare the Way" of a guitar reduction of the familiar introduction to J. S. Bach's chorale prelude "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Sleepers Awake").  (Once I discovered this blog post by Papa in which he declares Bach to be one of his heroes, as yours truly does, my esteem for Papa turned into a full-on man-crush.)  And if those credentials were not enough to validate Papa's commitment to the historic Church and the Great Tradition of doctrine through the ages, there is one of my favorite cuts on the album, "Trinity," which is about—well, you guessed it.  Seriously, how many Christian songs have been written in the last few decades on the central doctrine of the Christian faith?  But this ought to be expected of a musician with a rich doctrinal statement (and he calls it a creed!—wow!) on his website as well as a "mantra" of biblical principles that guide his ministry.

The songs on Your Kingdom Come generally fall into two thematic categories.  One category, which includes the songs already mentioned, are songs of adoration to the Triune God, especially the risen Christ.  The other category is a bracing challenge and exhortation to the Church to proclaim the gospel in word and back it up in deed to all nations in light of the authority of Christ and his coming judgment.  The prime example is the eponymous track of the disc, "Your Kingdom Come," which happens to be my favorite cut of them all, a vigorous, rousing anthem of God's coming kingdom and the Church's plea to be engaged in it.  This group of songs also includes the frankly harsh "Woe to You," a chastisement of false Christianity steeped in Jesus' declamations in the Gospels, and "Where Is the Difference," reminiscent of Keith Green's classic "Asleep in the Light."  (Come to think of it, Papa kind of looks like Green.)
Keith Green

Matt Papa
The music on Your Kingdom Come also breaks down into two categories following the two main themes.  The songs of adoration are more likely to be piano-driven and reflective.  Despite the fairly simple and sometimes cyclical chord progressions, the musical interest derives from the lush dissonances and harmonies formed by the backing synth pad, the melodic line, or instrumental counter-melodies.  The kingdom/mission songs on the other hand are more likely to be guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock, usually with the kind of hard edge that you expect from a band at a youth event.  These songs have the gripping energy and beat that make you want to move.  And of course, getting the Church to move is Papa's point.

It's been a long time since an album worked its way so deeply into my thoughts and passions, actually forming those thoughts and passions, as this one has in the past few weeks.  And in fact I can't remember an album ever eventually forming my preaching as this one has as an internal counterpoint to the series I'm currently preaching in the Gospel of Luke.  Luke is about the kingdom coming in Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  (Regular readers know my restlessness over the Church's reflection on the kingdom of God, and I'll be blogging at length about the Holy Spirit real soon.)  This is what Your Kingdom Come is about at its core.  I think Papa would be pleased that his musical sermon is forming spoken sermons.  As he says on his website, "Songs are sermons people remember.  I often don't remember a sermon I heard yesterday, let alone a year ago.  But with songs, there's a hook, and people remember it.  So that's why I want to write with Scripture.  I don't want to waste time."

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