Album Review: The Painted Desert by Andrew Osenga

(2018) The Painted Desert

More than a decade ago, I drove with some friends to one of Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. To this day, it is my favorite place in the world to watch a concert. There’s something magical about the otherworldly acoustics in the room and the hardness of the old pews that mixes together and makes it feel like you’re on the front row now matter where you are in the building.

During the in-the-round portion of the evening, a guitar player got up and played a mesmerizing song about a small town and its high school marching band. It felt like I was listening to a short-story set to sync with a Bruce Springsteen record. There was just one guy with an acoustic guitar on stage but the song expanded somehow and filled the room. Later on, this same guy came out and played electric guitar and sang harmonies for the BTLOG song cycle and, by the distorted volume swells on the third song, I was hooked.

I went to the merch table after the show and bought a record of his called Photographs. We listened to it on the way home. I was early on in college and songs like “Kara” and “Kankakee” made me ache for the hometown that like so many students experience, is never quite what you so fondly remember when you return after a few years.

Fast forward to 2018 and Andrew Osenga’s music is still making me ache for home. His new record, The Painted Desert, is a mature, well-crafted album that is as thematically tight and self-aware as any singer-songwriter record I have ever heard. In describing the genesis of the album, Osenga writes:

“I thought I was done making records. I felt I had said all I’d ever have to say. Then life happened. The past few years have felt like wandering in the desert, in a myriad of ways. I had to face some hard truths about myself and ask some hard questions, about who I am, what I believe, and what I’m called to do…The Painted Desert is, I pray, the album version of conversation with a friend where you have the freedom to be real with doubt, fear AND hope.”

This “freedom to be real” is an excellent thesis statement for this record and comes through beautifully in the lyrics, several of which made me cry on both the first and fifth listen. “The Year of the Locust” is a standout for me with lines like:

Take comfort and rest / When the heart is an uncivil war and you’re taking a beating
Blood red on your chest / He will restore the years the locusts have eaten

Another emotional highlight for me was the opening track, “Beautiful Places,” an exhortation to Osenga’s daughters to both know their family story and to find their own adventures in the world. As a dad to a little girl myself, I was wrecked by this line:

So grab some life insurance money / Call your sisters, and cross things off the list
Scatter my ashes in beautiful places / it’s the last gift I can give you
Beautiful places

The image of my little girl standing on our shoulders, acknowledging the beauty and brokenness of her parents’ story while discovering her own place in the world, will stick with me long after this record ceases to be new.

One of the crowning achievements lyrically for this album is its ability to walk the narrow line between relatable vulnerability and something more self-indulgent. As a fan of more aloof folk songwriters like David Mead or Josh Ritter, a line like “And if you love me, well, I am sorry / ‘Cause there’s no way I haven’t let you down” (“Mercy”) feel deeply candid and personal without crossing the line into over-sharing.

While artists like Ritter appear to maintain strict “show don’t tell” rules around their writing, disappearing completely behind narrative songs and more obtuse imagery, The Painted Desert feels like it was written by an artist who wants to be known by the listener. It pays off immensely upon repeated listening and, at least for me, achieved Osenga’s mission of creating space to “think, feel, and remember.”

One last highlight: I will be surprised if there is a better complete folk song written this year than “My Bittersweet Old Friend,” which combines beautiful acoustic finger-picking, layered vocals, melodies doubled by piano and electric guitars, and incredible lyrics like:

I’m listening are you calling? Am I just waiting
While hope is there within the longing?
My bittersweet old friend

Speaking of instrumentation, I am tempted to describe this album as “stripped down” compared to other records Osenga has released. But, honestly, I am not sure I even noticed the lack of traditional drums until they suddenly showed up at the perfect moment in the final track (“Give Up”). Some songwriters go for a smaller-scale approach in recording as a way to create intimacy but the end result is instead stale and lacking imagination.

This album is the opposite end of that spectrum. The production is complex and beautiful and each song feels like a complete thought. Though the instrumentation is perhaps minimalist in theory, the interplay between the lushly-arranged vocals and the ambient electric guitar lines, both staples of Osenga’s music, make every song feel like it would be equally appropriate in a coffee-shop or a stadium.

I could go on about The Painted Desert but this feels entirely too long already. Check out some of his previous music on Spotify or Apple music and then go support his new project on Kickstarter. He also has an incredible podcast called The Pivot that features interviews with fascinating artists, entrepreneurs, and more – find it wherever you download your podcasts.

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Book Review: White Awake by Daniel Hill

White AwakeIn the past decade of working with college students, one of the most common resources I’ve scoured the internet trying to find is a simple guide for white students desiring to better understand their ethnic identity and their role in the work of justice. There are lots of great resources out there but many are either too dated to be relevant to the Trump era or too academic to be immediately actionable.

I’m happy to report that I have finally found a book to buy in bulk for intrepid students and friends for the next decade. Pastor Daniel Hill’s book, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White (IVP), engages academia while remaining approachable, acknowledges deeper spiritual realities while remaining practical, and roots itself in the Gospel and in Scripture while pressing us beyond the walls of the church building. It is the whole package given to us in under 200 pages – exactly what I am looking for.

Following a few introductory chapters to lay some necessary groundwork, Hill’s book is structured around seven clearly defined stages of white identity. You might think of them as signposts along the way, letting you know the lay of the land at each stage and giving the necessary guidance to make it through the next leg of the journey. At each stop, he engages with Scripture, relevant social science theory, and compelling personal narratives to guide the reader into understanding. The book wraps with well-written discussion questions that make me itch to get a group of friends together to discuss it.

The Good & The Quotable:

Beyond the personal challenge that this book was for me (the chapter on Self-Righteousness is heavily underlined in my copy – ouch), one of my favorite things about this book is its pacing. That may sound strange but Hill manages to avoid several tropes of the “popular ministry handbook” genre that left me feeling pleasantly surprised at the end of each chapter by its clarity and sharpness.

Here is one brief example to illustrate my point: it’s common in books like these to introduce a theoretical framework or ministry model (“Seven Stages of White Identity”) and then brazenly attempt to overlay that concept onto a biblical narrative, suggesting that there is a character or story in the Bible that perfectly embodies the journey you desire your readers to take.

It would not have been hard to imagine Hill finding a character with cultural power (Peter in Acts 10, Moses in Exodus, Esther) and then attempting to mine these seven stages out of their story. Trust me – I have read dozens of books like this and the hermeneutical gymnastics eat up so much page space and attention capital that whatever point the authors gets easily lost in the shuffle for a critical reader.

Mercifully, Hill’s book engages with Scripture responsibly and appropriately for each stage. Instead of beating up a passage of the Bible to justify his eloquent theory, Hill saves some of his most poignant writing for his unpacking of the biblical narrative. I promise you will never read the stories of Matthew and Nicodemus, among others, in the same way again.

I could go on but let me just share from the author’s own voice a few of my favorite quotes:

“The theology passed on to us from white forefathers is considered to be the normal, default standard for theology. It is the assumed cultural norm. Everyone else’s theology is defined in relation to whiteness.” (33)

“We are traumatized, and we are therefore in denial. Acknowledging that all our land was stolen from Native people feels like too great a burden, so we create an alternative reality that allows us to disengage emotionally from the truth” (73)

“Why does God ask traumatized people to look at the trauma they initiated through their sin and rebellion? For the same reason God asks us to: it is the truth and we are free only when we lift up the truth” (77)

“A good way to think of it is that conversion gives us the ability to begin divesting ourselves from the grips of white superiority” (97)

“That’s why I’ve come to believe that a white person’s reaction to the term white supremacy is the most tangible sign to his or her being awake or not” (148)

“We come to terms with the fact that we were steered as young people toward ‘good’ school districts, ‘good’ neighborhoods, ‘good’ universities, and ‘good’ jobs. We didn’t have the eyes to see it then, and we now realize that ‘good’ was the politically safe way to say ‘white.’ This normalization of the goodness of whiteness has led to a lack of diverse experience and we realize it has shaped us as white people in a very specific and unique way.” (150)

“To be a white person in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of lament almost all the time.” (158)

“It may not seem like the most enticing work, but engaging with the white people in our extended community is one of the most concrete ways to make a difference” (175)

The Transferable:

There are a number of easily transferable tools for leaders and practitioners that Hill gives throughout the book. The seven stage framework itself is a goldmine for those of us in the business of discipling white people through their identity development. However, perhaps the most impactful tool for me, personally, was the first one mentioned.

Hill notes that he was challenged early on in his journey by a older leader of color to inventory four groups of voices in his life:

  1. His closest friends
  2. The mentors he looked to for guidance
  3. The preachers/teachers/theologians he relied on for spiritual guidance
  4. The authors of the books he was reading

The exercise was simply to list them and then take note of the cultural backgrounds they represented. I believe this exercise would be provocative and convicting enough for 90% of white folks to decide they need to take greater ownership over their journey toward awakening and active participation in God’s shalom in the world.

Who Should Read This:

I legitimately believe every white Christian should own, read, and discuss this book in 2018. In fact, for any of my local friends who are reading this, I will put my money where my mouth is. If you promise to read this book in 2018, I will buy and deliver a copy for the first five people to comment either here or on my Instagram feed. I hope this leads to some great conversations and real change for all of us.

10 Books I Loved in 2017

Every year I set a goal related to reading. This year, my goal was to read for thirty minutes every day. It went…okay. I think if you averaged out the time across the year, I probably got to or near the finish line. Let’s say B+ for effort.

For 2018, my goal is to only allow myself to start a new book once I’ve journaled or blogged about the book just finished and can point to one practical step I’m taking in my life as a response to what I read.

I am learning as I get older that I often love to finish a book just for the sake of finishing and moving on to the next one. My hope is that this habit will push what I’m reading toward actual growth in my life.

When I look back over my reading list from this year, I can tell that the main question I was processing was “How does my vocation as a follower of Jesus move from my working hours as a career missionary down into the everyday life of my family in our neighborhood?”

I started off 2017 with a good sense that I was about to leave the missionary agency I had been with for nine years. One of the goals my wife and I had in that transition was to get a better sense of what our family’s mission is in the world. We are certainly still trying to understand that but I can tell that themes like vocation and calling were central for me in 2017.

And now, with no further ado, here are 10 Books I Loved in 2017:

Roadmap to ReconciliationRoadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter-McNeil

I first heard the term “racial reconciliation” in college and, as the author herself laments, the hardest thing about reconciliation is not explaining it; it is practicing it. How do you actually work toward reconciliation as a community? This is the closest thing to a handbook on reconciliation that I have read and I would heartily recommend it to you if you are looking for a community resource. You can read my full review here.

visionsofvocationVisions of Vocation by Steven Garber

This book would also win my 2017 Award for Most Boring Cover. I have owned Visions of Vocation for at least a few years and never thought to open it until I read about Garber in Jena Nardella’s book, One Thousand Wells. Garber is the principal of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture and is a consummate mentor even across the medium of a book. If you want to learn more about vocation in 2018, check this one out.

techwise

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

I have already decided to buy every book Andy Crouch writes so this wasn’t a shocker for me. However, if you’ve found yourself daunted by his 10,000 foot thinking before, I would recommend giving this book a chance. It is an immensely practical treatment of the role of technology in our lives. I genuinely believe every new parent should be issued this book as they leave the hospital. You can read my full review here.

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Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

I heard about Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, from listening to podcasts featuring Sandra McCracken and Andrew Peterson. When two of my favorite songwriters recommend a book, it goes on my Amazon Wish List. Smith argues prophetically that humans are not primarily thinking creatures in need of better worldviews; we are instead, desiring creatures in need of better liturgies to shape our hearts. Timely and beautifully written – don’t miss it.

Faithful Presence by David Fitchfaithfulpresence

As someone engaged in “mission work,” for the past decade, I have read roughly one billion books on being missional. There is an entire industry that exists to convince you that your church or ministry is wildly old-fashioned and irrelevant and, if you only buy a certain book and attend the $500 annual conferences designed around it, you too can be missional and actually love Jesus. If I could recommend one mission-centric book that you could buy today and then unsubscribe from all of that silliness, this is it.

embraceEmbrace by Leroy Barber

Having worked with college students for my entire adult life, I know that it is usually around this age that many develop a heart for justice in the world based on their exposure to perspectives beyond their home experience. If you are opening your eyes to injustice in the world and looking for a great first book to accompany your journey toward active engagement, I found Embrace to be a wonderful, simple introduction into the Christian movements for justice.

failure_of_nerveA Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman

Hot take: This may be the most prophetic and necessary book on leadership for our generation and it was written twenty years ago.

Friedman’s key point is that organizational leadership in our time is crippled by interpersonal relational anxiety and using all of the wrong tools to address the problem. It is dense and challenging and bypasses many of the “ten simple steps” and other bland tropes of the genre. I’m still chewing on it months later.

slowchurchSlow Church by C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison

Drawing inspiration from the Slow Food movement, this book is structured around the themes of Ecology, Economics, and Ethics. It pushes back against the “mcdonaldization” of the church, particularly in the urban core of cities in which so many white millennials, in particular, find themselves living and attending church. If you, like me, find yourself in that demographic, I would highly recommend this book.

eastofedenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck

Our family devoured this book in 2017. When we could have been watching TV or going to bed, my wife would instead choose to read Steinbeck. I had to see what all the fuss was about and I was not disappointed. Between the highly readable prose, the cavernous depth of characters developed, and the fascinating biblical narrative parallels and theological conversations, I got hooked on it too. Timshel!

duncowThe Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

This was another book highly recommended by a handful of songwriters that I admire and I am glad I finally crossed it off my list. It’s a little bit Orwell, a little bit Chaucer, and a little bit The Hobbit – all wrapped around an epic good versus evil story where even the good characters have to come to terms with the evils within. It’s an easy read with a beautifully sad and heroic ending that is wonderfully satisfying.

How about you? What did you read and love in 2017? What were some major themes from that reading for you? Any recommendations for my 2018 list?