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Book-CD package a creative blend of word and music


I WILL NOT BE SHAKEN: A Songwriter’s Journey Through the Psalms by Jamie Howison and Steve Bell. Winnipeg: Signpost Music, 2015. Paperback and music CD, $29.99 (Signpost Music); 133 pages. Reviewed by Edwin Buettner and Cheryl Ferguson.

Firmly grounded in the work of singer-songwriter Steve Bell, this book-CD package is truly a multi-modal feast, catering to the head, heart, and body. In words and music, it serves well as a 25-year retrospective of Bell’s creative work based on 17 selections from the book of Psalms. In each chapter, the reader is able to read a particular Psalm (from the 16th century translations by Coverdale), Howison’s brief homily, Bell’s song lyrics and a heart-felt sharing of how it came to be written. Switching to listening mode, one has access to Bell’s recording of his rendering of the Psalm.

This collection highlights some important dynamics of the spiritual life; it is a kind of lectio divina in which a scriptural text is mined in order to seek meaning and guidance for the particularities of one’s life. Both authors freely share how the Psalms have been a source of comfort, challenge, and practical guidance as they have worked through the opportunities for growth that life offers. In the book’s introduction, Professor Gordon Matties of the Canadian Mennonite University observes: “. . . these songs are ... engaged ‘readings’ — vulnerable meditations on how the Psalms have read Steve Bell” (emphasis added). These ancient prayers have endured because they are able to show the sincere seeker how God is working in his or her life, much as a liquid takes on the shape of its container. Matties goes on to emphasize the spiritual travail that underlies Bell’s writing: “ . . . the songs reflect a journey into and out of the Psalms.”

Howison’s commentaries often emphasize the essential “truthfulness” of the Psalms — how they “pull no punches” about the nature of life and humanity’s responses to its capriciousness. While many of these canticles offer consolation, others paint a rather harsh picture of the ultimate futility of human strivings. Yes, there is exaltation and joy in some psalms, but in others there are cries for murderous vengeance on enemies. The Psalms invite the pray-er to come to God in naked honesty: “The God met in the psalms can cope with everything we can possibly say or feel or fear.” Despite the universal experience of feelings of abandonment and despair in life’s journey, in its wholeness the Book of Psalms is an expression of ultimate trust and hope in a loving God: “Having known rescue and reorientation, faithful singers can balance an expression of trust with a plea for continued love and mercy, and find no contradiction.”

Bell’s music attracts a wide variety of people from many backgrounds. His music’s popularity can be attributed to a combination of stylistic considerations, instrumentation, and accessibility to those with limited music education. It may well be that the broad appeal of Bell’s music is due not to complexity, but rather to its simplicity. The clear melodies with accessible harmonies are easily appreciated, drawing listeners into the wisdom of the Word, enhanced and beautified by fine musical artistry. Bell’s arrangements maintain the Psalms’ laments and exultations; he very capably retains the original poetic lyricism of the Psalms as it is recast into a more familiar musical idiom.

Though some music critics might argue that Bell’s representation of the Psalms is predictable and musically unsophisticated, therein lies this collection’s strength. As the music is generally within the folk genre, it is easily understood and passed on. Folk tunes may be defined as a set of simple tunes passed through generations by a cultural group or community in order to preserve the thoughts, stories, and perspectives of a people. Bell’s renderings are folk tunes of the Christian people; each time a parent sings Bell’s song to their children, or churches use them as congregational hymns, the message of the Psalms is kept alive among Christian communities.

The intentionally simplistic instrumentation (guitar, piano, percussion, and voice) and chord structure, not only appeals to all, it also invites others to become participants in the music. Nearly all of Steve Bell’s live performances include an invitation to audience participation, thereby making for a deeper and more personal connection to the words of Scripture.

Bell’s work is highly conducive to meditation and prayer, in both formal and informal settings. Imagine the CEO of a large corporation driving home through rush-hour traffic with Bell’s songs bringing her mind and soul to a place of peace and solace before greeting her children at the supper table. Or, imagine a child hearing the music being played at home and singing the beautiful words of the Psalms, learning the faith outside of the traditional catechism classroom.

The songs on the CD are presented in the order Bell wrote them, rather than the order in which those Psalms appear in Scripture. This affords a glimpse into the mind and heart of Bell on his journey as a musician who has devoted his career to enlivening scriptural wisdom for all seekers.