Tuesday, following my supper at Cafe D’Amour, I headed over to McNally Robinson for a book launch. Steve Bell Juno Award winning singer-songwriter and Jamie Howison priest and writer, were debuting their collaborative effort, I Will Not Be Shaken: A Songwriter’s Journey Through the Psalms.
Howison is priest at St. Benedict’s Table and has written extensively. Two books that in particular that I have appreciated are his biography/theological study of John Coltrane, God’s Mind in That Music, and Come to the Table, his brief treatise on Open Communion.
Steve Bell first made a name for himself as a member of Elias, Schritt and Bell, a popular band in early eighties Winnipeg. In the late eighties, Bell started working at Youth For Christ, and his musical path took a new turn. I’ve been listening to Bell’s music since pretty much the beginning of that time, first hearing him in concert at Church of the Way.
The Birth of I Will not Be Shaken
It was at the same time that Bell started with YFC that he and Howison connected. As the back cover of I Will Not Be Shaken states, they “have shared a friendship rooted in their common love of words, music, and the stuff of faith.” This book and companion CD are the results of a long-simmering collaboration.
The first attempts at writing are over a decade old. This project was put on the backburner for quite some time. Yet, this is a good thing. The final product is like a soup that has not been rushed. Along the way new ingredients are added resulting in a rich, deep and complex flavour. Reading it is like coming in from a cold, damp day, and having the soup bring warmth and comfort. A warmth and comfort that lingers even after we have stepped away from the table.
One of the elements that adds to that warmth is the decision to use Miles Coverdale’s Psalm settings at the beginning of each chapter of I Will Not Be Shaken. These are the Psalms that have been at the heart of the Book of Common Prayer for centuries and offer their own unique comfort and consolation.
As I read the Coverdale Psalms I often found myself singing renditions other than Bell’s. This to me highlights the fact that the Psalms are meant to be sung. In particular Psalm 84 brought to mind Samuel Liddle’s How Lovely Are They Dwellings, and Matt Redman’s Better is One Day in Your Courts. Both make use of a good portion of the text. Yet even after hearing both these versions, Bell’s Psalms have away of seeping into the brain and life, much in the same way as the soup warms the whole body through.
Unlike the above examples, Bell’s setting doesn’t encompass the whole of the Psalm. What he excels at is getting at the core of the Psalm. In contrast to the above, Bell’s God Our Protector takes a simplified approach. In six lines he captures the essence of the Psalm, and a sense of quiet contentment that comes from being in God’s presence.
It also highlights one of the real strengths of this book. Each of the songs in the collection invites the listener (if you have the album) or the reader, to find a fresh perspective on the Psalms. The book and cd both do this without in anyway trying to diminish other experiences of the Psalms. This also noteworthy in the I Will Not Be Shaken project: The Psalms are to be experienced more than studied. While showing a strong academic theological base, Howison’s reflections never move too far away from the reader’s need to experience the Psalms.
Another strength of the book is that it is rooted in the everyday, The Psalms themselves cover the whole gamut of the human experience. They reflect more than any other part of scripture our joys and sorrows. Our anger, even rage, and our peace. Both Howison’s and Bell’s writing also comes from a deeply lived interaction with the Psalms. The stuff of life jumps off the page in both writers contributions to the book, and like the Psalmists both allow difficult parts of their lives to be laid bare and raw on the page. I particularly recommend Howison’s thoughts on Psalm 23.
This also works with the decision to place the Psalms in the order that Bell recorded. In the later recordings we Bell is not less confident in God’s presence and support. However, one get’s the sense that he has greater clarity on the things that matter to God and in his own life. I sense this not only from the Psalms but having had the opportunity to connect with Bell’s work in support of Churches for Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road.
If I would have suggested anything different in the book it would be the inclusion of more of Bell’s thoughts and storytelling. As fine as Bell’s musicianship is, it is his storytelling that has always elevated his concerts from mere shows into worship experiences. This is not to suggest that there be less material from Howison. Instead the book could be longer.Either I Will not be Shaken the book or I Will not Be Shaken the cd are good choices. I hope people will pick up a copy of each..