Album Review: Ben Rector - Brand New

by Robert Johns | September 3, 2015

written by Ross Cleveland

At Student Activities, we try to bring in artists and bands from an array of genres. Most recently, we were able to invite Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors to perform at Block Party 2015. For those who went to Block Party, we hope you enjoyed the show and the night as a whole. Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb are just a couple of the many artists and bands that are able to produce not just great music, but music that has a story to it. I love to be able to listen to an entire album in one sitting, because it lets me see how each song contributes to a bigger story.

Ben Rector is one of those artists for me. Over the past couple years, I have known several couples who want to use Ben’s music, such as his song “White Dress”, to be in their wedding one day. I mention this as I believe couples want a song like “White Dress” because it addresses honest and personal issues that provide joy and excitement for the future, a song that can be the start of, and forever part of, their story.

That brings me to Ben Rector’s latest album Brand New. The first song I want to bring to your attention is “The Men That Drive Me Places.” He talked about this song following one of his most recent shows this summer:  

“I started talking to cab drivers because I travel a lot, and it is interesting because most of the time those drivers are brilliant. Through the encounters and conversations, I realized that I am a product of my circumstances, and upbringing. I say that in regard to not just myself, but actually all of us. I mean even through parents that instilled hard work and positive reinforcement, I had a great start and foundation, and many people do not have that. Thus, after talking to many of these drivers, I saw that each driver was hardworking, diligent, and spent lots of time giving back through driving, but receive such small rewards… so I wrote a song.” (watch the video)

I mention this introduction because it goes back to the real life stories embedded in Rector’s songs. If someone were to ask me: “What word first comes to mind to describe Ben Rector’s music?” I would have to say: stories. “The Men That Drive Me Places” is the story of a man named Howard, “who drives a minivan with the cruise ships from Ft. Lauderdale, and it’s been that way since 1994…Oh isn't that just the way it goes, you’re dealt a good hand and you get celebrated. Oh how am I the only one who knows I'm half the man of the men who drive me places.”

Another album highlight is “Favorite Songs”, which mentions many influential artists and songs, including Steven Tyler, Madonna, and even Smash Mouth’s “All-Star”, that have impacted many people. It shows Ben’s ability to be relatable to each and every listener through upbeat melodies and easy lyrical patterns.

There is even a story while Ben is on an airplane with the desire to introduce himself to a man who has been “better, has been worse, chased after pretty girls, and seen the kind of places he never thought he’d see. He has walked into harder times, and even walked out the other side; but it seems like you get up what you need and when looking down from 30,000 feet, life has been good to me” (30,000 Feet). It’s an interaction between Ben and another person building a relationship, and it’s a story that we can probably relate to: we have good times, and we have walked into hard times, but in the end, life has been good. It’s the hope for our life that, despite hardships, we can see the blessings we have been given, and we can only thank God for who we have become.

To end the album, Ben writes a slow song called “More Like Love” that shows Ben’s heart in being a musician and performing in front of large crowds. Ben declares his desire to just be “more like love” especially in a world that seems so crazy, a world that does not have enough love sometimes, and that even without all the answers, we still seek to embody love.

The song I want to close with is the one that opens up the album. It is an important introduction, acting as a short anthem for the listener to “Make Something Beautiful” in a world that is filled with sin and destruction. The person that makes something beautiful could provide hope, just like the album Brand New, which I think achieves this through the honest, personal, and relatable stories that are the basis for the songs on this album.

If you haven’t listened to the album, I encourage you to check it out.

Gauley Season

by Robert Johns | August 27, 2015

written by Joshua Yeoman

Ahhhh, whitewater rafting, America’s national past-time! Well…not really, but whitewater rafting has had some of the coolest recreational advancements in the past 200 years. The first recorded whitewater rafting trip happened in 1811 on the Snake River in Wyoming. Use of rubber rafts was documented nearly 30 years later in 1840.  Almost 130 years later in the 1970’s, whitewater rafting really took off and hit mainstream America.

It’s nice and somewhat helpful to know the rich history of whitewater rafting, but you don’t need to know everything about it to fully appreciate Student Activities rafting trips.  Every semester, Student Activities takes a group of students whitewater rafting in West Virginia (cue the banjo)! This September 25-26, we will travel to the Gauley River in WV with 32 students to hit some of the fiercest rapids in the country. The Gauley is consistently rated one of the top 5 WWR spots in the country.  With our experienced guides, we “shred the gnar” on five, class V rapids (Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls). This trip is a must-do before you graduate. For $50 you receive, transportation, lodging, rafting, and two meals (retail value $250). Registration will open on Monday, September 14th at noon, but don’t wait too long, because those limited spots fill up quickly. For more information or a list of our upcoming trips click HERE

Student Activities: Mission and Purpose

by Robert Johns | August 19, 2015

Few friendships seem as magical as that of the group known as The Inklings, particularly the relationship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Based on the grandeur and influence of their works, it almost seems unjust that their meetings took place in such regular, real-life whereabouts as a pub, a cottage, or on a long walk, and not in Middle Earth or Narnia. Yet there they were many Thursday nights, often arguing a topic or discussing literature with one another, but perhaps just as often, doing nothing more than spending time with one another. And this gives hope to the rest of us. As the book about their friendship, The Inklings, reveals, their favorite times were the long walks that “got through the serious arguments in the ten miles before lunch and came down to mere fooling and school-boy jokes as the shadows lengthened.”**

Student Activities draws a great deal of inspiration from this. One of the pillars of our department mission is to foster relationships among Liberty students. We want our events to be the catalyst for the forging of new friendships, for existing friendships to develop and strengthen, and even for the rekindling of old friendships. This is about shared experience – rarely does one want to enjoy something alone. The movies and music that move you, the experience of rafting or rock climbing, or screaming “Bingo!” before your friends: these are meant to be experienced together. Of course, events do not make people become friends (especially if you beat your friend to that “Bingo!”), but they do allow for people with similar interests to become familiar with one another. As we offer multiple opportunities for students to participate in these events, we hope that this will lead to the formation of lasting bonds.

The relationships made during a student’s time at Liberty are, arguably, the most valuable thing that a student takes from here. Now, does that mean students spend $80,000 to come here and make friends? Of course not. But what value do you place on a friend who stands with you at your wedding, who visits you for the birth of a child, who supports you during a life failure or tragedy, who walks with you through life? There is no number for this. This is the potential we see at Student Activities. Though it is not our sole purpose (we will discuss our cultural engagement purpose in a subsequent post), relationship formation is every bit as important to us as the type and quality of the events we provide. Lewis and Tolkien walked together and were better men for it. Through the gospel, Jesus becomes our friend who walks with us forever. At Student Activities, we want our events to become characterized by the reality that “Friendship is having someone to walk with.”

**Quotes and other information taken from Someone to Walk With: Meditations on Friendship by Ray Rhodes

Culture and Entertainment

by Stephanie Ward | August 17, 2015

written by Steph Ward

The term “cultural engagement” is being used more frequently in Christian circles, and that is a good thing. It’s pretty easy to get upset living in a culture that has different values and beliefs than we do. Even in the “everyday” aspects of life, we hear value claims of all kinds in terms of what we should or shouldn’t do, whether it’s how we spend our money (“Buy local!”), what we listen to (“You shouldn’t listen to that album, it has bad language”), or what we watch (“Don’t see that movie, it’s too violent”), to name just a few examples. But a healthy view of cultural engagement helps to decipher and weigh the value of these competing claims, and at the same time keeps us grounded in biblical principles. At Student Activities, we have had to deal with many of these questions for quite some time, especially as they relate to movies and music. What follows will hopefully help shed some light on what “cultural engagement” has meant for us and show how we have approached the subject. Basically, as we have articulated in our department values, we see it as ‘not retreating from culture, but finding ways to press on, learn from and influence the culture around us…to move from passive consumption to active engagement.’

For us, it starts every year with our student worker staff. All the unique backgrounds, experiences, and opinions come together, and you see how different everyone’s views and tastes are. (This is really true for me because of how much I love country music – it’s a borderline obsession. My co-workers want to poke their eyes out when I turn it on, but I don’t care!). In any case, what our staff members have in common is that they are involved in the culture around them, meaning that they have been born in, grew up in, and now live as young adults in the culture of the United States. Of course, this is true for almost all Americans, but this means that they, like the rest of us, know about and have been shaped by the cultural elements they have experienced. Our hope, as we said above, is that we can facilitate a “move from passive consumption to active engagement.”

Alissa Wilkinson’s Lazy Cultural Engagement makes a good point of clarification here:

“[Christians’] ‘re-engagement’ with culture has sometimes amounted to, well, talking about talking about culture. Things get much trickier when we actually pull out the actual cultural artifacts: it’s one thing to talk about watching movies, and a whole different, more complex thing to try to talk about specific movies.”

I definitely agree with her assessment. Saying that we should “actively engage” the culture around us is far easier than being able to evaluate the particular claims, ideas, or artistic merit of movies, music, or any other form of entertainment.  What does this mean for Student Activities? Initially, many questions arise (as they do for us when we discuss this as a team). For example:

  • Can any work of art be “Christian”?
  • How far is “too far” in what we engage in?
  • Can something be “good” art but “bad” entertainment?

Over the course of your time here at Liberty, we hope to answer questions like these more thoroughly than I will be able to in this post.

As for our events, we don’t want to provide something for you to do on a Friday or Saturday night just to “keep you out of trouble”; we want to provide something for you to enjoy in terms of its entertainment, but we also hope that you’ll take the time to engage and think critically about what you watch or hear. This is why we host such a diverse set of events, and we hope that you’ll give it all a chance – whether it’s a movie night or a concert or even an Art Expo. It will be worth it, whether you agree or disagree with the opinions being given.

I hope this helps to show that Student Activities is intentional in our decision making. If something doesn’t line up for you at our events or in what you read, feel free to ask us about it. We may not see eye-to-eye, but, to be honest, that is mostly why I’m frightened by this topic. Not just because I think my knowledge of this topic is small compared to others, but because at the core, my selfishness wants my opinion to be the right one. Thankfully, I have grace to remind me that there’s beauty in being redeemed by a Savior who gives us the choice to think differently, to live abundantly, and to engage fully in the things around us.

If you’re interested to dive into this more, here are a few, short articles to check out:

The Lorax

by Robert Johns | July 17, 2015

The Lorax  State of nature and the state of your heart

written by Mike Ellsworth

A few weeks ago we talked about Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change and why we should care.  Let’s continue the environmentalism discussion using another classic source, Dr. Seuss.  “The Lorax” is a wonderful book and movie that has a pretty focused environmental theme.  If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, you should.  It focuses on the story of the Once-Ler, who destroyed an entire ecosystem.  Truffula trees are chopped down and the Brown Bar-ba-Loots, Swomee Swans, and Humming fish (Dr. Seuss sure is creative) are all forced to abandon their homes due to pollution, food shortage and disease.  The Once-Ler’s remorse over his initial removal of the trees is short-lived and he gets lost in his dreams of success. He becomes self-absorbed, unloving, and full of greed. 

Some of the principles in this story really resonate with the staff here at Student Activities Outdoor Recreation.  We have adopted the seven principals of Leave No Trace and try our best to use resources responsibly and teach participants these same ethics.  We are in no means perfect in our execution, but we believe in opening up more discussion about these ideas and are regularly making changes to our programs.  Our care for the environment is not act of worship towards creation; we see it as an act of service to our Creator.

John Piper makes a case for stewardship in a recent podcast by asking “Are you loving others”?  He uses the biblical command from Matthew 22 where Jesus tells us to “Love the Lord your God” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  You may not personally be destroying rainforests or creating toxic sludge, but the everyday decisions that you make do have a role.  Do you care about the people who drink the water that you pollute with your unnecessary waste?  Or do you love the people who do not get to take advantage of the extra energy that you use?  In this sense, do we become any less self-centered than the Once-Ler in Dr. Seuss’s story?

Taking care of the environment is first loving God.  He created the Earth and stewardship becomes an act of gratitude towards the Creator.  We are also demonstrating compassion for our current and future neighbors, whoever they may be.  We may never even meet them, but we are caring for their land and loving them.

Dr. Seuss intentionally left the face of the Once-Ler unseen because he believed that the Once-Ler should represent big business industrialists and not be a single individual.  But, I believe that the Once-Ler could have been left faceless because we each can see a sinful part of us demonstrated in the Once-Ler’s actions.  When we think selfishly and believe that throwing that gum wrapper out the window is no big deal, think about God’s creation you just dirtied, or the person who picks it up four months from now.  These actions may come from our own egocentric attitude.  It isn’t just an issue of global warming, fossil fuels, or recycling; for the Christian, environmentalism is an issue of personal sanctification.

How are your everyday actions in regards to nature, to creation, indicative of the state of your own heart?