An Introduction to Van Morrison: Part 1


A few weeks ago, my teaching colleague and good friend, David Tew, asked me where to begin with the music of Van Morrison. He was familiar with the music but knew I had gone deeper. A few days later, I dreamed about Van. While this is not all that unusual, it was followed by an announcement of Morrison’s sixth studio album, Veedon Fleece, being re-released on vinyl.

All this got me thinking about how vast and varied and off-the-beaten-path, most of Van’s albums are. When I say “vast” I mean it. He has released 40 studio albums and half a dozen live albums. And they are varied. He has recorded blues, folk, jazz, Celtic, pop, singer-songwriter, and classic country albums. And here’s the thing, while most people know songs like “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Wild Night,” and “Domino,” that’s it. Everything else is basically unknown unless you are an actual Van Morrison fan. And even those who own a copy of Astral Weeks or Moondance know very little else.

Where do you start when there are over 50 albums to choose from?

So I thought it would be fun to write a few posts in response to my friend’s question. But instead of making a top ten list, I thought it would be more enjoyable to look at the various stages of Van’s career and discuss my favorite albums from each period. And then I thought it would be good to discuss the live albums. Because of those live albums is transcendent.

Writing about Van is intimidating. There’s no way around it. Each word has felt like a shadow of the real thing. Like chasing chimeras. You never feel as if you have pulled off anything close to getting at the reality of what you are dealing with. But every writer will tell you about the need to write about those subjects which rivet their attention their most. And my attention has been fixed pretty consistently on Van for nearly 25 years.

Back in 1995, I worked at a BBQ restaurant while I was a student at Auburn University. That was one of the best jobs I ever had. A bunch of guys working at a BBQ pit, hanging out all day talking about theology, music, and girls, while eating all the free BBQ pork, chicken, and turkey we wanted. One of those guys was Jay. And I had never, and still have never met anyone like him. A self-proclaimed redneck who could play the guitar better than anyone I knew (even now) and he majored in Russian Lit. We would go round and round about theology and politics and just about any subject you could think of. To this day I wonder how we never came to blows. But I was always a little in awe of him.

In the back of the restaurant was this shelf where we would leave personal articles, etc. and one day I saw a double cassette album by Van Morrison. I asked, “Whose is this?” Jay – even though the album was not his – then proceeded to wax eloquent about what an incredible album it was. I’ll never forget him holding up the album in my face like some kind of evangelist holding the Bible and saying it was full of beauty and how Van wrote and sang and played as if he was on a quest for beauty.

That album was Hymns to the Silence.

I was confused by such talk. A quest for beauty? Keep in mind Jay was studying Russian Lit in earnest. He is the reason I read The Brothers Karamazov the first time. No doubt he had already imbibed Dostoyevsky’s statement that, “Beauty will save the world.” My redneck coworker was far ahead of me. He already saw beauty as trans-formative and something worth pursuing.

Fast forward a few months. I had moved back home to Birmingham because I was tired of racking up college-level debt. I wasn’t exactly directionless but I was only working and not taking any classes, living at home, and thinking about going overseas as a missionary. I was dating a girl and the relationship was rocky.

It was Saturday and my parents were out of town and so was the girl I was dating. I had nothing to do and was bored and lonely and frustrated with the girl. After an afternoon nap, I got up and drove myself to the mall and was looking through the CDs at Camelot.

More than once since that conversation with Jay I had paused when I saw The Best of Van Morrison in the CD bin. The foreign thought of “a quest for beauty” swam in my head. This time I didn’t pause, I picked it right up and purchased it without hesitation.

I only recognized three songs listed. It was always a risk in those days. There was no way to listen to an album before you bought it. But that was part of thrill. Sometimes you got burned. But you always gave the album a fighting chance even if after the first listen, you were disappointed. This was not one of those times.

When I got home I put the CD in my stereo, laid on the floor and listened to it straight through. Then I listened to it again. And again. And then I got in my car and drove around town for hours with those songs pushing the limits of my Honda’s speakers. I knew I had something.

And I could just touch the edge of that quest for beauty.

Then I proceeded to buy every van album I could afford. And each one I bought took me further away from my own environs on into pastoral lands full of beauty. It was like discovering buried treasure. A new land.

A few months later, I saw him live at Jazz Fest in New Orleans (May 4th, 1996). After that show I drove across the country and back, listening to him under star-studded New Mexico night skies and all alone through the barren plains of Texas. I’ve been listening to him now for almost a quarter of a century, encountering beauty all along the way.

My next post will cover a few “essential” elements you need to know about Van and his music. Don’t get me wrong, you can dive right in. But I think knowing these ten elements will help in your listening.

(Part three is here)


Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. The older I get the more I see that the fight is not to be doctrinally sound. And the fight is not to be loving. The fight is to be both at the same time. Choosing either one is really fairly easy. I have tended at times in my life to either ignore one in favor of the other or pitted one against the other. But the fight is really to hold onto the faith handed down to us and at the same time love those with whom we will disagree. Even our enemies. This will increasingly be the test of faithfulness in an ever-increasing secular world hostile to our faith.

2. I simultaneously wish I had read Watership Down before now and am glad I just now read it. It is true it is an adventure story of talking rabbits. But it is also a story about vocation. And it may be one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I’ve ever read.

3. Bookstores should be able to function as tax free businesses because they are so critical to the health of the communities they are in.

4. Re: Lauren Daigle. It is only a (post?) postmodern culture that views worship music as first and foremost an entertainment, that would defend her silence on a doctrinal issue with, “She’s reaching more people than her critics ever will.” Since when has an amount reached ever been a defense against the need for faithfulness to basic doctrinal precepts? There may be a defense when a Christian does not answer a controversial question but pragmatism is not a defense.

5. I worry about how much sugar my kids are consuming but I ate Little Debbies three at a time as a kid.

6. Only another teacher will be able to understand, but I love being back with my students. It’s as if there is something out of kilter when I am not seeing them regularly.

7. People will angrily argue over anything on the internet. I am part of a Facebook for fans of Bach and even there they will fight over the best recorded version of a piece and devolve to calling each other names.

8. I don’t want to wish away my life, but pitchers and catchers report in just a few weeks.

9. This isn’t normally a place for links to other articles, but this one by David Brooks is worth your time. I discussed this one with my 10th graders yesterday and it was a great profitable discussion for us all.

10. I love my kids but I am looking forward to loving them from afar with my wife while we are out of town.

Random Thoughts at the End of 2018

new years eve 2018

1. All I know for certain at the end of the year is the faithfulness of Christ. And that is enough. Enough to evaluate the past and enough to step into the future with a steady confidence.

2. For over two months, I have almost exclusively listened to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And it has changed me. I’m not even sure I explain it all. A pursuit of beauty. A desire to escape the shallow pools of pop culture awash in memes and prurient push for anything new. A need for music made “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.” It has changed me, I know that. And it’s felt more rebellious than I could have imagined.

3. I don’t understand the desire to take down Christmas lights so quickly. Too much joy for you? When we take ours down, it feels like a lancing of the soul. Which is why we keep the white lights burning bright in the Carolina Jasmine surrounding our front door all year round.

4. I’m about to say something I don’t even understand – I miss work.

5. Go find a recording of Bach’s “A Musical Offering” with Yehudi Menuhin on violin and after all the kids have gone to bed, put that on and turn off everything else. And then listen to it while they are awake so they have some exposure to something enduring.

6. I wish I had read Watership Down long before now.

7. 1) The smell of Bethany, 2) The smell of old books, 3) The smell of old records.

8. I do not doubt our wisdom in spending very little on Christmas presents for our kids. But that can be lonely when they come and tell you what other kids got for Christmas. Our kids handle this fairly well. Probably better than I would have. But it is a peculiarly lonely feeling. I am sure some of you have felt it. The despair of comparing others gifts to your own starts early and never really ends, does it?

9. Get your news from the poets.

10. All I know for certain about the coming year is the faithfulness of Christ. We may face tragedy and pain and disappointment hitherto unknown. But I know the King and he is faithful regardless.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom. There is a King and a Kingdom.

2. Beware of Christians who do not seem worried about speaking too strongly about how we should live, but they are worried about speaking too strongly about how much we are loved.

3. Those who follow the crucified King should be the last to be concerned about what is cool.

4. We now live in a world in which the only real rebellion is believing the Bible stories are true.

5. Seeing that picture of Justin Bieber holding Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage has thrown for me a loop. But a good loop. It is quite possible that now that book and Keller are being listened to the world over by those who would have never encountered him otherwise. And they are now encountering Jesus in all his glory and grace.

6. I need songs that help me wait for the coming King.

7. The hardest part of the coming school year will be resting on Saturday.

8. I was able to spend a lot of time with my daughter and sons this summer. Some of it was hard. Most was wonderful. What I learned though was, my interests and hobbies and how I spend my time and money and what I talk about are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, part of the discipleship of my kids. I have grieved over my lack of awareness of this at 4 am on many mornings.

9. If forced to choose a once-in-a-lifetime dinner with any famous person or my wife, dinner with her without even a wisp of regret.

10. After having two plus months off work, I am back to teaching teenagers about the deep things of God and the glory of the coming King. Below is a list of things I miss about working at the bank.

Random Thoughts for the Week Ahead

1. If Jesus were easy to understand, he would not be worthy of our worship.

2. I want inexplicable peace and I want understanding of all suffering. This is at total odds with how it all works according Paul.

3. Television is a killer. Not just because of the immorality but because of its insipid messages that steal wonder, ignore beauty, and trade in envy.

4. If you read the stories of Jesus, you will see the answers he gave were never what was expected by the questioner/requester. They were always unexpected and often challenging. But in our day and age, we have so “formulized” discipleship, if we don’t get the answer/response we want, then we assume it cannot be right. The formulas have trained us in predictable expectations.

5. I have had more meaningful conversations with my kids this summer about Jesus and his work, than maybe in all the years previous. Sometimes it felt urgent. Sometimes I felt desperate. But mostly I didn’t feel alone. They were worked out by Someone else while almost always spontaneous for our part.

6. I don’t want to be more uptight than Jesus.

7. Discipleship in the American church looks little like the discipleship in the NT. American discipleship is marked by American business principles: efficiency, ease of use, PR, marketing, celebrity, supply/demand, and utility over beauty. Whereas the NT looks nothing like American business.

8. I am 46 years old and still only now feel as if I am grabbing hold of some understanding that was out of reach for a long time.

9. Rest for the weary.

10. The good news and the bad news, both make me wanna go home.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. It is hard for me to get over the King saying the poor in spirit have a reason to be happy, because the kingdom – His kingdom – is theirs. Blessed are those who struggle with depression. Blessed are those who have been unimaginably hurt in this world. Blessed are the lonely. Blessed are the failures. Blessed are the exhausted. Why? There is a King and a Kingdom and they are more glorious than our dreams.

2. I woke up very early yesterday morning thinking about the movie, First Reformed. It’s a movie I did not like and would never recommend. However, the picture did do one thing well. The juxtaposition of the corporate megachurch and the small historic traditional church was something worth thinking about. The seeming power of the large and seeming impotence of the meager.

3. I’ve been going back and listening to some of the Christian music I listened to when I was younger. Some is still great (Chagall Guevara!). Some of it is terrible. Some dated. But thankfully I never listened to Truth.

4. We’ve been watching Lord of the Rings as a family and my boys are fighting over who is going to be Legolas for Halloween which is the only thing we’ll let them fight about.

5. I have found if I wait five minutes after I read something on social media, by then I have no desire to comment or respond.

6. Watching my kids grow up is all at once painful and beautiful. It really is a complex mix of emotion, realization, and desire. This should be a lesson. It makes sense that God, Who is even more complex, can love and be disappointed with His creation and have multiple desires on various levels. And all for our good.

7. It is a struggle to enjoy the sausage after so many years of watching it get made.

8. I finished the final book of The Wingfeather Saga and now I’m miserable.

9. It’s not so much that I dread going back to school. I dread my kids going back to school. And the homework.

10. We’ve never had much money. But we have been gifted something unique. Ninety percent of what we enjoy, we can enjoy together. Baseball. Food. Not having cable. The woods. Documentaries. Jazz. Our house. Being home. And the hope of home.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. Isn’t it something when Jesus says, “I am making all things new?” He could have said any number of meaningful statements. But this one statement really does open up the world. For if this is a vision of the Kingdom, we know from the beginning that the Kingdom is now among us. And if that is true, then in a real way, he is already making all things new through his redemptive work in the hearts of his people. But also through their work in their various vocations. All things new. Not just the spiritual stuff.

2. In fifth grade I discovered the power of the poets. But it was a lonely discovery. And has been for the most part a lonely treasure. I haven’t minded too much. Earlier this week I heard “To All the Poets” by Andrew Peterson for the first time. That loneliness and the treasure of poetry I could never put into words. Glad he did.

3. Every loss is a sermon.

4. A good book ends only in the most shallow sense. The good ones continue to stretch out beyond the back cover to the end of our days.

5. I have a heart that looks for loopholes.

6. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking a news story is the story. When we stop to think about it, we know that’s not true. For Christians, this should always be at the front of our minds. Not because of “fake news” but because we know God is always doing more than we can see in our kids, in ourselves and everywhere else.

7. Not sleeping well reminds me of my bone to soul-deep desire for the rest that is coming.

8. Again, we all need space where we are not marketed anything. No one is trying to sell us anything. Nothing. The church needs to be that space.

9. This is going to seem like I’m contradicting my statement above but I’m not trying to sell anything. At least for my own benefit. Bill Mallonee is simply the best songwriter out there these days. He has over 80 albums. Some are fully-produced full band albums and some are just him playing all the instruments with his wife Muriah helping out. Some are just him and a guitar and they sound so rough and so beautiful, like the New Mexico land he lives on. But they are all worth your time. I’ve been listening to him since ’93 and there may be no one who has influenced me more (maybe I should write about this). I just bought two more albums yesterday because he’s selling all the download versions for 50% off. Go here to listen and purchase. I’m telling you this because he lives off this. He’s not rich. He needs the money. And aren’t we all a little tired of singers who don’t?

Feel free to leave recommendations of his albums to others in the comments and ask for recommendations if needed.

10. Listen.

Subjects of the King

Christ the King

I sometimes work on my Sunday school lesson in my dreams.

No, really.

That was the case this morning as I awoke from a deep sleep. We have been in the Psalms this summer. Each week we have looked at one Psalm in which we do a quick overview of the Psalm, looking at the type of Psalm it is and if known, the history and how the Psalm might have been used in Israel. We then answer three questions: What do we need to understand within the Psalm?, Where do we see Jesus?, and When will it be helpful to sing/read/pray this Psalm?

Last week we looked at Psalm 2, which Jack Collins, my professor at Covenant Seminary (’03) labels a “Messianic Psalm.” I awoke still thinking about the implications of my study of that Psalm in anticipation of possibly talking about those implications this coming Sunday.  The goal of the class was to do a different Psalm each week. But that my not happen this week.

Because I am dreaming.

When I awoke from this dream at a few minutes before 6 am, I immediately got up, snuck out of the bedroom to the living room. While the coffee maker hummed with the promise of waking up this frame, I wrote down the following:

– The king was to be the Ideal Israelite representing Israel in righteousness.

– As goes the king, goes Israel.

– His rule and reign was to be the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

– Since Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah-King, he reigns as that ideal Israelite.

– Whenever the church gathers in the name of Jesus, the gap between heaven and earth is “bridged.”

– The church as the body of Christ is the physical representation of the King on earth.

– Churches and Christian homes are outposts (embassies) of the Kingdom of heaven.

– Christians in America far too often see America the same way they see Israel, when actually the Church is the heir of those promises as they are fulfilled in the Messiah-King.

– The hope that American Christians (conservative and progressive) place in politics and the kingdoms of this world mirror Israel’s rejection of God as their king and the desire for a king like the nations in Samuel 8.

– A Pakistani Christian is more my countryman than any fellow American, no matter how geographically far I am from the former and far from the latter.

The thought version of rough drafts blurred by sleep. More to come, maybe.


Random Thoughts for the Weekend



1.  Fear and love are at odds with one another.

2. I don’t think you could write a novel about a well-off pastor and that pastor be the hero of the story. It would at least be hard. And we need to think long and hard why that is the case.

3. My brother has been posting pictures of my parents from when they were young. One was from their wedding day. In another, my dad is wearing his army uniform and my mom is sitting in his lap. Their aliveness in those photos stands in direct opposition to their deaths. And what is more – that alivenes in those photos is nothing compared to their present aliveness.

4. I’ve been reading Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga books this past week. I am on book two and the next two should come in the mail today. I don’t know if it’s the post–Dostoyevsky need for something fun or what, but they are hard to put down. They are serious too. And full of beautiful writing.

5. Poverty of spirit doesn’t get you the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven is comfort when you have poverty of spirit.

6. Just when I should be giving my children more freedom, I instinctively want to tighten control.

7. I have a confession to make. This Summer I am teaching through the Psalms and my study and the very act of teaching the Psalms are doing an unexpected thing to me. I am simultaneously wanting to listen to music by Christians and feeling like something very substantive is missing from music by unbelievers. Let me be clear, this is not born out of a principal of what I should listen or can listen to. This is more of what I find helpful these days as I minister to my family, the church, and my students. But it isn’t only that. I find it easy to forget what I am waiting for. What is real. What the reality is behind the things I can see and touch. I feel as if I need songs that help me wait for the returning King, Who will make all things new.

Feel free to make suggestions outside of Peterson and Mullins.

8. Last night Bethany and I were talking with some friends about the travails of the life of ministry. There have been some awful moments and I’ve seen the worst of people on full display. Though I have been tempted to ditch the church, I have not for one simple reason. The King will one day return. And those churches are gatherings of those who also believe this. They are workers who gather at His embassy to remind themselves of who they are in the world and what they await.

9. All the regrets we have as parents will be also healed at the resurrection.

10. One of the reasons I am enjoying the Wingfeather series is they provide what we all tend to lose as we get older. Wonder. This world and even the Biblical world is so familiar we miss the mystery and magic of it all. Kids don’t. My kids still own the wonder of it all. They have yet to trade it away for rationalistic adulthood. And I’m a little jealous of them for that reason.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. I think much of the genius of Paul and the NT writers is found in their realization that they were their own biggest problem. Not Rome. Not the Empire. Not the over-sexualized culture. Not the secular institutions with which the early church had to surely compete for attention. It was themselves. That’s something.

2. I had an epiphany this past week. Really, over the past couple of days. I’ve been squeamish about writing for a few years. My experience with book-writing and Christian publishing made me squeamish about the whole business. This is no one person’s fault so do not try to read anything into this about my own publisher or anyone else. Experience made me squeamish. But here is thing. I love books. I love books written by Christians. Is it okay to admit I even love my own book still? On the same day I write this, while at a conference, I bought a book I fully expect to enjoy and learn from even though I’ve never thought much of the author. (His presence on social media is not always becoming.) And I bought this book assuming the best intentions of the writer, the publisher (who I bought the book from directly at their book table), and I fully expect God will use this book for my good and His glory. So, what am I so squeamish about again?

3. Everyone needs a place safe from marketing. The church should be this place.

4. I almost quit Facebook last week. The question in my mind was, “Can I just limit my intake to a very limited amount or do I need to quit it altogether?” Alyosha was the filter through which I was asking myself this. For writers there is more at stake. But then at a conference this week, hosted by the school where I teach, I was able to sit down with Stephen Williams for almost two hours. We have been friends on Facebook for about 6 years or more but had never met in person. We have had two very important things in common outside of our fellowship with the King. We both pull for the St Louis Cardinals. And we both love The Gaslight Anthem. That two hours was so enjoyable, I am rethinking the question.

5. Outside of the book of Revelation, there is nowhere in the New Testament where the flexing of muscle by believers is commended. Weakness is always the order of the day.

6. Yes, the blog has a new look. It has been about four years since I made any changes. And at that point I only added the Townes Van Zandt lyric. The ads should be gone for good. My goal is a Random Thoughts post once a week and then a short piece of writing once a week just like the good old days. Maybe more. If you have anything you would like to read about, feel free to leave those ideas in the comments.

7. Isn’t is strange how Christian institutions can describe themselves with confidence in laudatory pronouncements it would be seen as presumptuous for individuals to use?

8. I bought Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on vinyl this week. That is all.

9. Another reason I’ve been thinking about writing more is a conversation I had with a missionary this week. He had just finished my book and wanted to talk with me about the book and what he is doing. I’m not sure how helpful I was in that first of hopefully many video chats but he got me thinking about writing more. He was in a country my wife and I once discussed as a possibility for missions. He told me he is now recommending my book to pastors over there. So in a way, I am getting to realize a small dream or desire I had about ministering in that country through my book. Second, he said the book was right on time. That struck me. There was a small window when my book was being read by a number of people and I was hearing about it from all over the world. On Thanksgiving day in 2013, The God of the Mundane went all the way to #467 of all print books. That was a crazy day. That was a great day. But I have to reckon with the Providence of God as a writer who claims to read and write in the knowledge that the King is all wise and that when someone reads the book, that is the right time for them to read the book.  Which is more significant the providential reading years later when the book has been shelved into obscurity or the #467?

10. Though we, Americans, do not have a category for this line of thinking. It is not unwise to be thankful for the country we live in while at the same time harboring the concern it is those very things we are thankful for that obscures our vision of the King.