reviewed by Josh MacIvor-Andersen
The spirit of an age is anything but ephemeral. Zeitgeists manifest in myriad ways, particularly in music and art, dress and speech, banners and endless slogans. The ghost of any historical epoch has a way of becoming profoundly visible.
To peer back at the Jesus Movement of the late '60s and '70s, then, is to see a kind of super-charged, Christ-centric explosion of art and culture, some of which simply poached from what journalists were calling the "youth culture" but included the tender shoots of sonic originality, too. To come to faith in the midst of all that fresh Jesus music felt revolutionary. Divine. Timely.
I wouldn't know first-hand. I was born in 1976. But my dad does, as he was "born again" in the early '70s only to run off and play drums for the Lord in a Christian community called Love Inn. That's where I grew up—in a renovated dairy barn in upstate New York.
I asked him about it, once, the spirit of that time and its anthems.
"We would all have agreed that we had been sovereignly brought together in time and history," he said. "To testify of our own experience with Jesus, proclaim the Word in lyrics, model the new life we were learning, and demonstrate the freedom in the Spirit to celebrate, have fun, and make great music to bless and entertain the audience, ourselves, and the Lord Himself!"
It's hard for him to discuss the era without exclamation points. For him and many of his generation, it felt like history was culminating in their basement worship services, their dairy barn prayer meetings. The Lion was on the move. The King was set to return. Nothing was impossible.
This is the spirit infused into each track of Mystic Chapel, the sophomore project from long-time friends and collaborators Michael Glen Bell and Duane W.H. Arnold (they call themselves the Martyrs Project): expectancy, hope, honest-to-goodness belief in a coming kingdom just around the cosmic corner.
With the exception of some searing, plugged-in guitar work on "Hypachoi," the songs have a mostly quiet, camp-fire quality and liturgical vibe. They ask to be chorused collectively, meditatively, perhaps amidst candlelight. There are no real sonic fireworks.
The lyrics, though, reflect some of that mid-'70s Jesus Movement awe and excitement, the sense that God's reign was truly emerging in their midst—in their own hearts—on an unprecedented scale:
We sing with angels
Holding the eternal
Blessed to bear the light
Thy kingdom is forever
The power of thy name
Thy glory everlasting
From age to age the same
Zeitgeists, however, have a tendency to implode as quickly as they transpire.
The foundational question of Mystic Chapel is, "What if we still believed?" It's not that Bell and Arnold have lost their faith, but as they look back at the precise hope and joy and sense of purpose that permeated those early years, they recognize the chasm, the tumult of what's come between, and the fact that for some of their generation, the early seeds of sincere belief were eventually coopted by rabid-right politics or mega-church spectacle.
Cue the hateful rhetoric and fog machines.
In this way, Mystic Chapel is a collection of nine songs that are at once celebratory of what was, a lament for what's been lost, and a kind of bridge to the here and now, to the talented, creative young people currently populating Bell's and Arnold's lives, many of whom express deep faith (or desire for it) alongside disillusionment with the capital C church.
The album is a "love letter," write Bell and Arnold, "to the faithful, to the 'nones,' the 'dones,' and to all those in between."
More than that, though, Mystic Chapel seeks to create an aural atmosphere, a sacred "encounter" that connects the artists' contemporary lives with the spirit of a movement TIME magazine once called "an uncommon morning freshness…a buoyant atmosphere of hope and love along with the usual rebel zeal," and even all the way back to the eastern liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, from whom many of the album's songs find their inspiration.
In the artists' view, it's an expansive, inviting space without walls, and at its center is kerygma, the "proclaimed word," the same word they have spoken, are speaking, will undoubtedly speak forever.
It's the spirit behind what my dad calls "a clarion call" to broadcast the gospel of Jesus' love and power to change lives.
"It was on a banner in the barn quoting Psalms 19:4," Dad once said. "Their voice goes out into all the Earth—their words to the ends of the world."
On Mystic Chapel, Bell and Arnold proclaim it simply, strongly, and with great conviction. I, for one, am grateful for their individual voices, as well as their ongoing harmony.
Josh MacIvor-Andersen is the author of a book of narrative nonfiction, On Heights & Hunger, and the editor of Rooted, An Anthology of Arboreal Nonfiction, both forthcoming from Outpost19. He is currently at work on a collection of meditations on the dynamics of arrival, and striving daily, sometimes hourly, to explain the nuances of figurative versus literal rhetoric to his two children, both under five, who actually kinda get it.