Her reflective songwriting helps us mature in faith, argues veteran columnist John Stackhouse
A few decades ago, a Canadian singer broke into the Christian Contemporary Music scene. She had popular songs, most of which she composed herself, that won Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association. She was young and smart. True, she didn’t sing with the Sandi Patti-style soprano so in vogue at the time. But popular taste was shifting to embrace altos like Amy Grant, so it wasn’t hard to imagine this newcomer conquering the CCM popularity charts and staying there.
Since then, Carolyn Arends has won a cabinet full of awards and her “Seize the Day” was recently entered into the GMA Canada Song Hall of Fame. But she has never become a pop star. Now her 13th full-length recording of original songs, Recognition, reminds us why – and in the best way.
The first song, “Becoming Human Is Hard,” instantly sets the tone for what follows. Lots of Christian music tells us to come to Jesus, but what follows after you do? Sanctification, that’s what. And it’s not just hard, it’s impossible – without the miracle of the Holy Spirit’s regeneration and regimen.
Having earned degrees in psychology and theology, and having raised a couple of kids, Arends knows that growing up in Christ isn’t for sissies. And she manages to enlist both Pinocchio and King Lear in making that crucial point. Clearly, we are not going to be riding a wave of Christian happy-clappy.
Song number two, “Without Music,” declares that music yet can lift the heart from melancholy, so life isn’t simply a slog. Amy Grant shows up to sing along in agreement, even though the song badly misses a steel guitar. (Perhaps it’s the only stringed instrument Arends’s longtime sidekick, Spencer Capier, doesn’t play?)
“Memento Mori” hits us right in the face, albeit with comic lightness, with the fact of our impending deaths. In a funky shuffle backed by a goofy chorus no one will confuse with anything from Sophocles or Seneca, Arends reminds us of the brevity and precariousness of life.
“Pool of Tears” is a straightforward folk/country plea for sympathy and compassion. “Pain is part of the deal,” Arends acknowledges, “but we’re not alone.” (The steel guitar shows up mournfully here.)
And the following song, very Sarah McLachlan, mourns indeed for lost loved ones as Arends, as if through her own tears, bravely avers, “It is my honour to cry for you.”
By this time, we need some relief. And, come to think of it, there haven’t been enough “Jesuses” so far to qualify for typical Christian radio airplay. Arends kindly gives us a love song. But it is neither a cheesy “Jesus is my boyfriend” ditty nor a paean to adolescent passion.
Instead, it’s a tribute to her husband of several decades who, when she feels she is going to pieces, can “Gather Me” in his arms. If you’re familiar with Arends you’ll know how much she values the "collects" from prayer books that call God’s people to assemble before Him in worship, and the opportunity we always have to “recollect” God in prayer. But here she vouches for the truth of Genesis 2, in which God recognizes that God is not enough for the original human. We need each other’s company, too. This mature, woody truth is nicely set in Nashville roots music.
The mood lightens further with gospel brass, a gospel chorus and even a bit of gospel Hammond organ as Arends wishes us “God’s Speed.” Reminiscent of fellow Canadian spiritual writer Mark Buchanan’s recent book, God Walk, Arends urges us to slow down to the divine pace from the frenetic death march of modern life.
“Maladjusted” continues to ignore the always-positive mainstream of popular Christian music as Arends remarks on the deeply broken reality of the world, a world in which “everything we trusted has gone mad.” To such a world, the serious person can only hope to become thoroughly maladjusted.
As if to soften the blow a bit, the song features a Spanish tang, and one almost expects the late Marty Robbins to somehow come in from El Paso on the second verse. Instead, Arends stays serious and invokes Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the Apostle Paul, to insist that we must not conform to this world.
How much must we be different? Arends’s longtime friend, singer-songwriter Steve Bell, once wrote a song, “Burning Ember,” that was inspired by a famous challenge of Orthodox monk Father Joseph: “Why not become all flame?” Arends voices that aspiration here in “All Flame.”
Those who know her work as director of education for the spiritual formation organization Renovaré, her highly regarded journalism (including regular columns in Faith Today) and her popular retreat speaking all testify to her desire that the rest of us share that aspiration as well.
In the next song the scene shifts to the hospital bed of the dying, and a chaplain invites those preparing to depart this world to “Let Love Lead You Home.” Even as Arends does eventually mention God, and in full recognition of the delicacy of chaplaincy, this was the one time on the album when I wondered if she was soft-pedalling a bit. Not everyone, after all, can confidently let love lead them home from their deathbeds. But surely Arends was assuming a Christian situation, in which case the song is simply lovely and loving indeed.
The album concludes with the reminder – graciously, to herself, and by implication to all of us – to listen to one of Richard Foster’s most important spiritual teachings to word-centred evangelicals: look and listen for God everywhere. In the light of a glorious dawn, yes, but also at a street corner as you wait for the light to change, recognize the universe as a cathedral and God’s presence dwelling in every part of it.
And then, literally an “after-word.” As a bonus track, Arends includes “After This,” featuring Capier’s gorgeous strings and bass drums of deep promise. Eschatological hope lies at the end of all the hard work of becoming human. That is the fundamental recognition that keeps Christians going, today and tomorrow.
So now you know why Carolyn Arends didn’t become the next queen of perky pious pop, but something far better: a ministering minstrel, a singing sister, a poetic preacher, a tuneful teacher. Settle back in your chair, listen to her new work, and become more human.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find his regular, less musical, columns at FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture. Learn more about the music of Carolyn Arends at CarolynArends.com and get her new recording Recognition by clicking the word Shop at the top right of her webpages.