len: Steve, you have been around a while man! I think I first heard your music around 20 years ago. Come to think of it, it was with Elias, Schritt and Bell in 1980. Does it feel like that long to you? Tell us a bit about your journey over the years
steve: I grew up performing music with my mother and sisters in a gospel family band called the Alf Bell Family Singers. We recorded our first album when I was around 13 years old and that LP has some of the first songs I"ve written.
After high school, I started playing in night clubs and over the next ten years performed in numerous bands ranging in style from folk, to jazz-rock, to novelty and country. Then, in the late 80"s I started writing, recording and performing the music I"m now known for.
So yeah, it"s starting to feel like it"s been awhile. Recently, at a public function I was introduced as the “Grandfather of Christian Music in Canada.”? I laughed and feigned indignation but oddly enough, I wasn"t all that surprised by the introduction- I"m definitely starting to feel the weight of the years I"m dragging around behind me.
len: There is something unusual about your music. And i mean this in the best possible way If I had to identify it I would say that there is a reflective quality.. and a grounded quality.. that is too rare for artists of faith. And I would guess that it has to do with the broader context of your own family and your life in community. Is this accurate? Tell us a bit about your own faith context and its impact on your life and work.
steve: I grew up in a Christian family where the constant rehearsal of platitudes to maintain identity simply didn"t work. My mother battled crippling depression for most of her adult life and has spent long periods of time hospitalized for anxiety disorder. My father as well has lived with and managed bi-polar disorder while serving as a prison chaplain. I learned very young that suffering is a mystery far too terrible and wonderful for simple pietistic solutions and slogans. God and humanity are mocked and dishonored by such things.
I"m not sure how to respond to your appraisal of my music. I am certainly very pleased if it generates reflection. So much of contemporary Christian music is not really art in the truest sense. It asks precious little of the artist or the listener. It is mostly clever rehash of well worn platitudes and sentimentalities that resemble more of a Thomas Kincaid painting than a probing, challenging or healing work of imagination, reflection and skill.
I just came through the States on a driving holiday with my wife and had the opportunity to check into several Christian radio stations along the way. This is going to sound rather harsh I know, but is seems to me that contemporary Christian music (experienced through the medium of the CCM and its media outlets) is, for the most part, to art what McDonalds is to healthy diet, true feasting or fine dinning. And the damage is far reaching (read Fast Food Nation and let the metaphor work on you.)
I"m not claiming that my music is the antidote, but I hope at least that it is moving away from recent trends rather than toward them.
len: Though my entire family has enjoyed your work, we only got up to date on your albums this past year when we bought “Burning Ember.” The title song I had not heard til this past Christmas, and it has become a favorite, one of those songs that is growing with me. Tell us a bit about this piece..
steve: I think Burning Ember is certainly one of my better songs. It has always fascinated me that the song seemed to know much more than I did when I wrote it. In many ways it was a signpost, pointing toward an understanding I would grow into much later regarding the fundamental dignity of the human person created to “house the fullness of God.”? The song came to me while on a silent retreat at a monastery just north of Winnipeg. At the time I was reading the diary of Father John of Kronstadt ”? a Russian Orthodox priest from the late 19th century who understood that the human person was much like a cold piece of iron which, when left in a fire, has the capacity to take on the qualities of that fire – heat / light. His encouragement was for us all to lay our lives in the fire of God"s divine love by which we become by grace what God is by nature insinuating that anything less is beneath our dignity as human beings.
I"ve never looked at another person the same since. All of a sudden each person I meet is a freakin" miracle of potentiality before whom I am in awe.
len: One of the things that resonates with me about your music is your anchor in history and tradition.. the “ancient-future” thing if you like, or your attraction to the mystics. This not only gives you depth, it enables you to express a quality of spirituality that is too often missing in artists. How and when did you connect with this broader tradition? And is this an ongoing intentional part of your life?
steve: I discovered the Catholic tradition in my mid teens. My father was the protestant chaplain of a federal prison in Canada and we as a family got to know and love the Catholic chaplain, Father Bob MacDougal. Fr. Bob was also the parish priest of the town that had grown up around the prison and since there was no one in his congregation that could provide music for the Sunday mass, he asked my mother, my sisters and I to be the “worship band”? which we ended up doing for a couple of years. That is where I developed a deep appreciation for the liturgy and the notion that God is a mystery to be reverenced rather than a problem to be solved.
Later, in my late twenties a good friend of mine discovered and converted to the Orthodox church through the writings of Peter Gilquest. Through my friend I discovered the mystical tradition of the church, the Desert Fathers, and a deeper understanding of liturgy and tradition. By nature, the ancient church traditions are much less rational and more poetic in their way of “knowing”?. So I suppose, as an artist I was and am quite naturally drawn by them. Currently I am worshiping in an Anglican congregation.
len: Here’s a question I don’t really know how to phrase. Not long ago I read an article by Robert Bellah where he argued that the possible recovery of the sacramental tradition may be the only hope for the survival of western Christianity. But so many artists are already there.. living outside those traditional boundaries… looking beyond the surface level of life.. and living as Catholics with a small “c”… Does this make sense?
steve: Oh I think so… the sacramental, the symbolic, the way of negation ”?these are the landscape for the artist. It is not the only legitimate landscape of course, it is just that with the enlightenment and modernity, this particular way of knowing has been largely suspect, ignored or dismissed. The result is a tragic disease in the body of Christ, especially in the west, that is increasingly bordering on the insane.
len: There is so much talk about culture, church and change these days. It’s a good conversation, but one that also makes some people nervous, not unlike the impact of George Barna’s new book “Revolution.” What is “church” to you? What is the gospel? Are you engaged in the conversation about the gospel and culture, and if so, who are your mentors, who are you reading?
steve: That"s such a difficult set of questions to answer. I have been distraught to despair at the evangelical church"s response to the Iraq war and the ongoing destruction of the Palestinian people by Israeli state malevolence. It all points to a rather bizarre interpretation of the gospel that leads (rather smugly I might add) to the destruction of whole peoples and the environment while somehow hiding behind Pro Lifey slogans. “For God so love the WORLD…”? is a line of scripture that looms frighteningly large for me; “Love your enemies….”?, “Those who live by the sword…”?, “Some trust in horses and chariots but…”?, “I desire the death of no one…”?
I am currently re-reading Jaquque Ellul"s The Subversion of Christianity where he opens with the question, “how has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the bible?”?
Thomas Merton writes, “It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God Who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who take the sword will perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians, soldiers, men, women, and children, without discrimination, even with the almost infallible certainty of inviting the same annihilation for ourselves!”?
I must admit that in the past few years I have lost all confidence in the gospel as we have typically understood it. Rather than the highly individualized notions of personal salvation that have developed and thrived under Capitalism"s reign, I am finding hope and energy from cryptic statements like “the Kingdom is at hand,”? or “among you.”? And the more I step back, quiet myself and adopt the disposition of an observer/discoverer rather than a conquerer the more I am starting to recognize the inbreaking of God into our history in powerful ways ”? but powerful in the way that beauty (in it"s many forms) is powerful rather than the crass brutish power we"ve become so addicted to. Powerful in the way that a tender plant drawing inspiration from the sun and hunger for the deep down freshness of soil will break through concrete.
What am I reading? Since the invasion of Iraq and a subsequent trip to Palestinian West Bank a couple of years ago, I"ve been reading mostly history of the Middle East and Islam. I"ve laboured through several volumes by Bernard Lewis but also most of Karen Armstrong"s works: Battle for God / The rise of Fundamentalism within Christianity, Islam and Judaism is a must read. Also, her books Islam and Muhammad are the best introduction to the man and the faith I"ve read. She is not uncritical, but her telling is compassionate, reflective and fair.
Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian who was eight years old when his family lost their home and village in the 1948 Israeli/Palestinian war. His book Blood Brothers is a beautiful story of his own history and remarkable dedication to the work of forgiveness and reconciliation.
I"ve also been following the reflections of Brian McLaren as of late. I just finished Elie Wiesel"s Night, Khaled Hosseini"s The Kite Runner and currently I"m re-reading Jacques Ellul"s The Subversion of Christianity.
So the last few years, I have not been into the Mystics much and am starting to feel the need to return to that well.
Steve Bell’s website is Signpost Music
Part II Friday..