Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The church in question: from 3 Kiwi songs


Last week I was in Wellington for The church in question: A conversation, an event cohosted by Victoria University and St Johns-in-the-city. The aim was to provoke a broad-ranging conversation about the state of the church. Hence the venue was a pub, more likely to engender an open, lively, public conversation than a church hall. Format wise, there were four short (8 minute) talks from a panel of four, Dr Doug Gay, Dr Matthew Scott, Dr Susan Jones and myself, followed by Q and A. (Although for a few it was imore statement than question).

Church people talking about church people can become quite inward. So I got thinking about the questions the music I’m currently listening to is asking of church. I was surprised how easy it was to find songs – recent Kiwi music – in which the church is in question. So much for secular NZ society. So here is what I said:


There is a saying – “It is better to sit in the inn thinking about the church, than sit in the church thinking about the inn.” So it’s great to here tonight – in an inn – thinking about the church.

I want to think by listening to 3 NZ songs – all recent – all thinking about the church in question.

I could’ve taken a theological angle. As Principal of a theological College, this is favoured terrain for my students. I could’ve taken a new forms of church angle. I do in my 2005 book, The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (emergentYS). I could’ve taken a leadership in change angle. I do that in my 2016 book, Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration. But in honour of being in an inn, I want to look at some NZ music. Three contemporary Kiwi songwriters, all reflecting on the church in question.

The first song is Waiting for a Voice, by Dave Dobbyn. It is from his Harmony House album. His 8th solo album. His first in 8 years. Released in March.

The first verse of the opening song has the lyrics

“I saw a stranger on the opposite shore
Cooking up a meal for me
And what’s more I Hear Elijah. Get into the water man and lose your sin.”

So there is food (cooking up a meal). There is religious themes (Elijah). Which drives into the chorus (Heaven is waiting for a choice, Waiting for a still, clear voice.)

So this is good news – there is divine encounter. But there are question. In a pew-based, front-facing performance, where is the place for “cooking up a meal” and see the stranger and listening for “still, clear voice.” A first Kiwi song. Divine encounter, but the church in question about the forms and practices by which we hear the “still, clear voice.”

The second song is One hand by Little Bushmen. It is off their Te Oranga, 2011 album. Their 3rd studio album. The final song, the lyrics of the first verse are as follows:

One hand raised up high
is it to ask a question, or to deny?
And one hand can turn the tide
from sorrow to divine

As with Dobbyn, the divine encounter is not in question – “And one hand can turn the tide from sorrow to divine.” It comes when there is room to raise the one hand to question.

The second verse brings the church into question

Two hands raised to worship
your deities wait in slumber
Those two hands, building Rome
seedy senate self implode

So there’s questions about 2-handed worship and about a church that partners with Rome, perhaps a reference to Constantine and Christendom. The bridge continues to bring the church into question. This time theologically:

I want to love my neighbor
though he’s a non-believer
He ain’t no sinner man.

Can the church practise love the neighbour and hold to belief in “sinner man”? So again in NZ culture, the church is in question. The divine is a reality, but only when linked with one hand raised in question, not two hands raised in worship. Can the church allow dissent and activism, a love of neighbourhood beyond a “sinner man” theology?

A third song is from SJD – Sean Donnelly. From his 7th album. Released 2015. As with Dobbyn and Little Bushmen, there is plenty of space for the divine. It begins with the album title – Saint John Divine – referencing presumably the 15th century Spanish theologian and mystic.

The second to last song on the album is titled “Through the Valley” and the chorus rifts off the Lords prayer “It will be accomplished on earth as it is heaven (chorus).” The song starts sounding hymn like. Lest we think this is only about funerals – singing the Lord is my shepherd – as a loved one goes through the valley, the lyrics describe what could be Pentecostal church.

“The laying on of hands will commence with the prayer
Still you stumble to the front,
When we call out,
Call out backsliders and sinners.”

But SJD often has his tongue in his cheek. He tells the NZ Herald that the song brings the church into question – “As a teenager I had some involvement with churches … it wasn’t really for me, and the song is about that disconnect.” So once again, in contemporary NZ culture, allegedly secular, we find the church in question; linked with funerals and Pentecostal altar calls, but disconnected from young people.

At the risk of offering nothing more than a questions -What forms of church cultivate hearing the still clear voice? Is there room for 1 hand raised in question? Can faith be more than alien to young people? -let me end by turning to the research from Nancy Ammerman, (Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) one of the most comprehensive contemporary studies of spirituality.

She concludes

  • First, that contemporary faith is a lot more interesting than counting prayer and church attendance. As we see by listening to 3 Kiwi songs
  • Second, that religion and spirituality are not binary opposites but overlapping quests. Hence the struggles we hear in each of our 3 Kiwi songs
  • Third, that the stronger the connection between everyday life and community, the richer. Hence the plea in Little Bushman, for a faith in which the one hand can question and activate.
  • Fourth, that for many, many people, life is more than ordinary. As we see with Dave Dobbyn.

Some thoughts as I sit in the inn, thinking about church, in the inn, listening to contemporary Kiwi music.

Posted by steve at 07:09 PM

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Poi E: The Story of our Song: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 100 plus films later, here is the review for September 2016.

Poi E: The Story of our Song

If Poi E – the song – is waiata poi, Poi E – the movie – is waiata haka, a challenge to how New Zealand sees itself. In 1984, New Zealand music was dominated by imports. In that year, of the seventeen number one songs, all but one was offshore in origin. On 18 March, Poi E a song by Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club, became number one. Without mainstream radio play or television promotion, Poi E would top the charts for four consecutive weeks, becoming 1984’s number-one single of the year. The song reentered the charts in 2009, and again in 2010, making it the only New Zealand song to chart over three decades.

Behind the genius of Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club lay a strong supporting cast that included a linguist and a local church.

Ngoi Pewhairangi was the linguist, a native Maori speaker committed to advancing her culture in order to ensure a genuinely bicultural nation. Ngoi Pewhairangi had already penned the 1982 hit song, E Ipo, for Prince Tui Teka. Dalvanius mixed E Ipo for Tui, turning his live performance into a recording that became New Zealand’s first ever number one song in Te Reo. In exchange, Dalvanius learnt from Tui of the lyrical gifts of Ngoi Pewhairangi. He took a tune to her home in Tokomaru Bay. Poi E – the movie – includes the playing of the first recording of Poi E. Dalvanius strums a ukulele and sings the lyrics gifted to him by Ngoi Pewhairangi.

The Patea Maori Club began as an initiative by a local Methodist church to encourage young people. Methodist Minister, Reverend Napi Waka poured his energy into the Club. As Jim Ngarewa said in a 2006 Touchstone interview, “Both the marae and the performance are important elements of Maori Methodism in Patea.” It is reminder of the influence that a local church, when it seeks to support art, culture and young people.

In producing Poi E, director Tearepa Kahi cleverly uses two techniques to ensure momentum. First, a set of scenes as Taika Waititi remembers and Stan Walker learns. Spliced throughout the movie, these scenes provide a narrative thread. Second, the clever way in which repeatedly the musical score runs on, despite the visuals changing. The result is an underlying musical continuity, consistent with the movie’s focus on song.

A few weeks before watching Poi E – the movie – I read the story of Flying Nun Records (In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, 2016). Author Roger Shepherd offers a David-and-Goliath-like tale, of local music struggling to be heard amid offshore imports. In 1984 – the year of Poi E’s release – this local record company achieved sales of $90,000, through promoting Pakeha bands like The Chills, The Clean and Shayne Carter.

In contrast Poi E – the movie – tells the story of Dalvanius borrowing money from local business to fund Poi E – the song. This is the waiata haka of Poi E: the reminder that local in New Zealand is much more than white boy bands and a Dunedin sound.

Today the Patea freezing works remain closed. Yet each week in a local church (now a cooperating parish), the Patea Maori Club still gather. May Pakeha accept the waiata haka of which their song speaks.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 02:14 PM

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Let Time Be Still

This is beautiful. ‘Let Time Be Still’ is a song by Greg Johnson, inspired by the words of poet James K Baxter. It is one of 12 songs recorded for 2000 tribute album Baxter: settings of poems by NZ songwriters. The backdrop is Jerusalem, up the Whanganui River, the centre of Baxter’s final years. The lyrics “matins making” chimes with the Catholic symbols – Mary and the crucifix – which complexified so much of Baxter’s imagination. The beat and vocals slow the tempo, echoing the lyrics, the dream of perfect moments in which time stands still.

Posted by steve at 12:10 PM

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

John 21 and Waiting for a voice, Dave Dobbyn

Those looking for some contemporary creativity around John 21:1-19, the lectionary text for this Sunday, will find helpful Dave Dobbyn’s latest album, Harmony House, released last week. I hope to provide an album review soon, but in the meantime, the opening single, Waiting for a Voice, is intriguing. Here are the lyrics (my transcription from the album playing on the car stereo this morning)

Verse 1 –
I look across a clear glass lake
Not a ripple on it, not a minnows’ wake

I saw a stranger on the opposite shore
Cooking up a meal for me
And what’s more, I heard Elijah
I know it was him
Get into the water man, and lose your sin

And Heaven is waiting for a choice
Waiting for a still clear voice (repeat)

Whether intended by Dobbyn or not, the references to the story of Jesus in John 21 are multiple. Beside the Sea of Galilee in verse 1 (I look across a clear glass lake), the disciples catching nothing in verse 3 (not a minnows’ wake), the presence of the risen Jesus, initially unrecognized in verse 4 (a stranger on the opposite shore), the charcoal fire in verse 9 (cooking up a meal for me).

The reference to Elijah is not named in John 21, but it is a way the disciples might have been making sense of this encounter. There is clear confusion between the Jesus unrecognized in verse 4 and verse 7 “It is the Lord.” A number of times in the Gospels, people wonder if Jesus is Elijah. This shows the power of the Old Testament imaginations that holds. It also shows how the human mind always works within known structures of meaning when trying to assimilate new experience. This has significant missiological implications of course. People move from their known to the new, so any communication needs to begin with the known. In so doing, it will always run the danger of being misinterpreted.

I love the baptism imagery (Get into the water man, and lose your sin). Again, it is not in the text. However it is a lovely imaginative working with the role of water, that is for baptism, and consistent with the actions of Peter in verse 7, as he jumps into the waters of Galilee in his rush to get to Jesus. The lyric makes total sense of the pathway to redemption, that we come to faith through the waters in which are sin is washed away.

The chorus is a catchy mix of crashing chords and ecstatic vocals, channelling the ecstatic sounds of a Nick Cave. The lyrics are distinctly evangelical. Heaven is waiting for a choice. Personally, I wince at the focus in the lyrics on human agency, at the danger of human pride in “my choosing to follow Jesus.” At the same time, there is a sense in John 21 of choice, particularly and repeatedly, in the three questions Jesus asks of Peter in verses 15, 16 and 17. Are we willing to trust ourselves to a stranger, who insists we make clear lifestyle changes (and lose your sin) in choosing to sit around a fire with Jesus?

So how would I use it? Probably I would mention some of the lyrics during the sermon, then play the song after the sermon, as a seque into communion. I would weave some of the lyrics into the communion prayers (thanking God for the saints, including Elijah; for the gift of creation, including lake shores and the waters of baptism, through which we find communion with God). I would ensure the prayers allow a time of silence in which I would invite us to listen for God’s “still clear voice.”

If I knew the community well, I might even invite them to share what they heard at the end of this listening. If I was doing this, my sermon would focus more on a lectio divina approach to Scripture, in which I create space for imaginative listening. Then I would play the song, mention the lyric – listen for God’s “still clear voice” – and invite that space for silence, for listening, and then for sharing.

Who knows what that still clear voice of the risen Lord, so strange to us, might say?

Posted by steve at 08:13 AM

Saturday, February 27, 2016

song for the homecoming: Longtime by Salmonella Dub

It’s good to see you again my friend
It’s been a long, long time

Don’t you fall from grace
Be cool with your space
Check your place
In the race

Posted by steve at 07:53 PM

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Aha, there’s a storyteller: Daniel Lanois, Brandon Flowers and a ministry of imagination

Daniel Lanois is a record producer and musician. His CV includes working with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Brian Eno and U2. Quite a list! Three of the albums he produced have gone on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Quite an achievement! Soul Mining: A Musical Life is his autobiography. Part poetry, part techhead, part philosophy it’s an intriguing and stimulating window into art and the artist – as it is glimpsed in the recording and music industry.

Here is his reflection on deciding to work with Brandon Flowers (formerly with The Killers) on his 2010 solo album, Flamingo.

I can hear Brandon’s influences, and that’s okay by me; we all got into this because we fell in love with already existing works. The part of me that looks for the original turns a blind eye to the influences and a good eye to the imagination of this young man. Aha, he’s a storyteller. There is it is, the never-ending frontier – storytelling. Life experience lives beyond the medium. (208)

It’s a lovely insight into how different generations might work together, Lanois born in 1951, Flowers born 1981. It’s a fascinating insight into the music industry and the valuing of originality. It’s a reminder for those of us who work in the religious and spiritual world, that yes we need to have our influences, our traditions and our authors. But lets not lose our good eye for imagination and the valuing of life experience.

Isn’t that the biggest challenge for teaching and for ministry formation – to cultivate imagination in the midst of the sifting of life experience?

Posted by steve at 02:50 PM

Friday, October 23, 2009

free Black Seeds Kiwi music download

for next 48 hours here.

Here are my thoughts on the free download:

Funky beats. Laidback vibe. Nice guitar. But the wind section is just too predictable. This is a live version of a song from their On the Sun album (2004). Which is an OK album, but is not nearly as strong as their more recent Into the Dojo and Solid Ground albums. In other words, this is not necessarily a strong advertisement for their new album release: The Black Seeds Live: Vol 1 for the start of their NZ tour.

And it also raises an interesting question: Why would you release a live album to coincide with the start of a live tour? Surely a live album should come AFTER a live tour?

Posted by steve at 07:25 PM

Saturday, February 07, 2009

groove armada new album free download

Groove Armada‘s new EP is out. What’s more, until March, it’s a free download from, a new experiment in digital sharing. For Andy Cato, “Sharing music has always gone on. It’s giving music away that’s the problem. We wanted to come up with a 21st century version of what we used to do with cassette tapes. When you give music away for free it’s disposable. When you share it, it’s done with love.”

Here’s the “sharing” deal – click below and you also get to download the EP. What’s more – the more that click through from this blog, the more of the EP tracks I get to download. I share the linking luv with you, I get some luv shared back.

emergentkiwi has shared an exclusive Groove Armada track with 0 people on B-Live Share

Get the track for yourself and start sharing

Posted by steve at 11:46 PM

Monday, May 05, 2008

worship and new zealand music month

To celebrate New Zealand music month, I posted a short review of 5 Kiwi albums released in the last year. It has occurred to me since that each of the 5 albums have been incorporated in various shapes and forms into worship here at Opawa Baptist. For those what are interested in worship as “all that we are responding to all that God is” (superb definition from John Drane), here is how:

Salmonella Dub’s Heal Me has a track titled “Seeds” We used it to as part of Grow through gardening, over 3 weeks. We had a hanging basket. Everyone got given a “flower” laminated, on which they wrote their name and planted themselves in the hanging basket. It served as a call to worship. It became for me a very spiritual moment to hold that basket and then pray for those gathered to worship that evening, that they would grow.

Two albums; Tiki Tane, and Little Bushmen start with a track using traditional Maori instruments. We have used these tracks in recent weeks in our morning service as a call to worship, followed by this prayer:
We gather at a place on which many have gone before. Thanks for land on which we gather. Thanks generations worshipped in this church. Thanks for those who have shaped our faith, mentored and encouraged us. May our acts of worship continue your work of shaping generations for ministry in our world today. Amen

SJD’s album has a funky track titled Jesus, full of questions about the place of Jesus in our world today. We used it in our Grow through searching for the real Jesus. The service includes a time in table groups, in which people discuss together – as we listened tonite, what did questions would we like to ask Jesus if he was sitting beside us; and as we listened tonite, what words would we use to describe Jesus. The song “Jesus” made for a helpful soundscape as people talked in groups. What people discussed is then collected up, and placed on the Grow service website.

And, as for my top album, Into the Dojo, by the Blackseeds. Well they have a track titled “One by One.” With lyrics like “Come on and take me up, one by one” and being a song filled with up-beats, well, it’s a great song for during the offering! With a smile of course.

So there you are. Five examples of using songs in worship, honouring that pathway, as a layer allowing, “all that we are – even our contemporary musical life – responding to all that God is – alive in Aotearoa New Zealand today.”

Posted by steve at 06:15 PM

Thursday, May 01, 2008

new zealand music month 2008

It’s May, which means New Zealand music month again. The month dawned golden, with news that Flight of the Concords debuted at No. 3 in US charts. It’s been an excellent year for Kiwi music.

Salmonella Dub were back with Heal Me. While they missed Tiki Taane, their partnership with the NZSO was a wonderful blend of indigenous beats and luscious harmonies.

Speaking of Tiki Tane, he went solo. Past, present, future is not a great album, but it holds promise of musical creativity worth nourishing.

Another album from Little Bushmen is well worth a listen. Pendulum feels like a lot more of unified narrative that the Onus of Sand. Experimental and thoughtful.

SJD was back and I’m glad. Songs for a dictaphone is much more mainstream in sound than his earlier work. But it works, presenting a much more cohesive and accessible sound.

But my top album award goes to Into the Dojo, by the Blackseeds. Great beats. Laidback. Superb.

In the year ahead, I’m hanging out for the partnership between Richard Nunns and Paddy Free, and that mix of beats and indigenous Maori instruments. This is a definite creative stream in New Zealand at the moment. It has led to me trialing an innovation in our Sunday morning service, whereby we start with a brief recorded karanga, or musical call, using snippets of indigenous Maori instruments, followed by a prayer, acknowledging our sense of place and those who have gone before. Still waiting for feedback, but for me, it deeply connects me with God here and new in Aotearoa New Zealand.

What about you? What has been your musical highlights of the last year, and how has that enriched your connection with God?

Posted by steve at 10:19 PM

Sunday, October 22, 2006

5 star music review: tim finn’s imaginary kingdom

Tim Finn’s latest album, Imaginary Kingdom, is a superb listen. From the sing-a-long opening of the single Imaginary Kingdom, to the beautifully arranged strings of Winter Light (which appears in The Chronicles of Narnia), this album is a musical feast, from an artist who has mastered the craft that is the 3 minute pop song.

Amid the catchy riffs you become aware of a thoughtful humanity. Whether it is the impact of suicide and loss in songs like Salt to the Sea and Dead Flowers, or the mystical appreciation of nature in Astounding Moon, this is an album of poetical depth.

Tim Finn has been penning rock songs since the 1970’s, first with Split Enz, then Crowded House and The Finn Brothers. His mop of grey hair is a reminder that writing good music is like a good red wine. It is a skill that matures with age.

Buy it internationally here; or in New Zealand here.

Posted by steve at 08:09 PM

Saturday, May 28, 2005

recommend: fat freddys drop


after initial dislike, “based on a true story,” by fat freddy drop, is growing on me. i still think they are better live, but that is a reflection of how good they are live, rather than the album.

Posted by steve at 02:19 PM

Saturday, December 04, 2004

how to dismantle an atomic bomb

Sometimes you can’t make it on your own; makes me cry, because I love my dad, and he’s not in the best health.

Love and peace or else; has got this great big fat base-line that begs to be played loud.

City of blinding lights; is classic U2 that affirms the Edge as the Original of the lead guitar species.

Posted by steve at 02:47 PM

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

designer U2

I love the simple yet bold effect of the U2 Vertigo/itunes sample. (Download from here). When I see work like this, I am re-affirmed in my awareness that I am not a graffic designer …..

Posted by steve at 10:26 PM