Review of How to Be Here by Rob Bell

Some books entertain you. Other books teach you something. Really good books do both. Then there are the rare books–the tomes that change your life. I just read one of those.

Click to see How to Be Here on Amazon.

Click to see How to Be Here on Amazon.

I haven't always been Science Mike. In fact, Science Mike is a relatively new thing in my life.  In the first half of 2012, I hadn't written a book, hosted any podcasts, or done any speaking tours. In fact, I'd never done any of the things I do today to make a living.

I was a hard worker, sure. You could even say I was a workaholic. But, I was miserable. After a life of technical work, I found myself in the creative work of advertising, and it scared me to death. I felt a constant sense of dread, like I was going to let everyone down and then watch my family starve.

I imagined my coworkers in meetings. One would say, "Whatever happened to Mike?" And the other would look down at the desk with a look of melancholy before speaking softly, "He died of hunger, along with his poor wife and children. Some people just aren't meant for the ad business."

I'm kidding, but not by much.

And then I met Rob Bell. If you know me, you know that meeting represented a serious spiritual awakening. But what you may not know is I went back to those little conferences Rob put on several times. There was something in the air beyond the my questions about who God was. It resonated in my bones.

Rob described creative work unlike anyone I'd ever heard. Rob called out the overwhelming sense of shame so many people feel about their identity, or what they may have to offer the world as creative work. He told us how to face that shame and find the determination to start anyway.

And then he told us how he does his work. The process of scraping insights out of the world around us, assembling them, and speaking the truth of what we found to other people.

So, I tried it. I stared writing every day. I blogged. Despite incredible fear and feelings of being a phony, I collaborated with people with far more talent and experience than I had. I started podcasting, and every week I commit the simple, yet terrifying act of telling people what I'm learning about our world.

4 years worth of that writing recently turned into a book that I'm incredibly proud of.

I've often wished I could share what Rob told me with others. All of it. I wish other people could know that the little voice inside them that begs to come out, the part of them that says they should write, paint, sculpt, play, whatever, anything speaks truth. That they have a gift to share with the world.

Now I can. Because Rob assembled all the thoughts and insights I learned into a book called How to Be Here. I'm telling you the truth when I say the words in the book made me who I am today, that without them I would probably be a computer consultant in Tallahassee who blogs about atheism.

If you've ever dreamed that you could do something, but have been afraid to try, this book is for you.

If you play if safe instead of taking the big risk because of white-knuckled fear, this book is for you.

If you want to start living a life that you create with intention, instead of falling out of bed only to fall back into it, this book is for you.

I can't offer a higher recommendation. This work changed my life, and I believe it can change yours too.


Christopher Nolan just released a movie called Interstellar. It's science fiction film steeped in the big questions of life and some pressing ideas in the sciences. After a few hundred of you sent me questions about the science behind the film, I headed to the theater so I could answer your questions.

My friend Rob Carmack did a five question interview with me about Interstellar. If you've only got a few minutes, that's the way to do. We also did a special edition of The Liturgists Podcast to discuss the science and faith themes found in the film. The podcasts runs just over an hour, so we cover your questions in detail.

Be warned, both are full of spoilers and plot details.

Review of Gungor's I AM MOUNTAIN



Music about God is often panned as imitative, unoriginal, and shallow. I've long thought the blame for this phenomenon rested more at the feet of those of us who buy "Christian" music than it does the artists or their labels. There are some very powerful songs in the genre, but there is no getting around that U2 and Coldplay should feel flattered. Very flattered.

Don't get me wrong, I really like worship music. For all the artistic limitation imposed by its audience's very specific wants, Christian music can still inspire a transcendent state in the listener. At its best, the genre encourages us to look beyond the self toward something greater. Some of the greatest moments of insight in my life have been found alongside a straight-eight bass line and an ambient guitar lead with a lot of reverb and echo. It is what it is.

Sometimes a Christian artist breaks the mold and explores new ground, and occasionally that artist finds success in the marketplace. David Crowder is one example–exactly who is he trying to emulate? His sound is not only unique in his genre, but in the larger world of music. I treasure artists like these because the ability to break new ground while taking an audience with you is a rare talent.

It is in this spirit that I write a review for I AM MOUNTAIN by the alt-folk collective Gungor. In the spirit of full disclosure, this review is far from objective–I consider Michael Gungor a friend. We met through a mutual friend and our first conversation was a multiple hour exploration of the nature of God, faith, science, philosophy, and ultimate reality . Prior to that meeting, I only knew of Gungor as a band that made a really interesting single called "Beautiful Things," and I'd only heard that song because we covered it at church. I had no idea about the rest of their catalog, or that Gungor was an actual name (I'd assumed it was a reference to some kind of anime). This is a too-long way of saying this review is heavily biased because my enjoyment of this record is colored through the conversations I've had with Michael.

Part of what defines the Christian Music genre is a sort of saccharine sweetness. It's pleasant at first, but in large doses the feelings evoked can seem false. Very little Christian music reflects the real messiness of life and relationships, or our attempts to follow after a God we believe in. Inevitably, verse 3 or 4 generally rights all wrongs and restores everything that is broken in our musical stories. I get why this happens. Our faith is all about reconciliation, and it's something we long for.

But we don't always get to see that, do we? Sometimes relationships don't heal. Sometimes the friend dies even though we're all praying for them. We have faith that all this works out in the end, but today that check is uncashed.

I AM MOUNTAIN is a messy, unresolved record of utter joy, jubilation, hope, and doubt. It is a volume of music that is both refreshingly undefined by popular norms and packed with melodic hooks that hop on a carousel in your mind. This is a record that talks about God, yes, but it also talks about love, philosophy, loss, the search for meaning, cosmology, and coping with the existential burden of self-awareness. In the same way our lives are multi-dimensional, this album reflects the depth and texture of a life well lived.

Momentary carbon stories from the ashes filled with Holy Ghost, life is here now breathe it all in, let it all go, you are earth and wind.

The title track earns it's distinction and inaugural position well. It starts out softly, a looping set of keys and Michael softly singing "I am mountain, I am dust, constellations made of us." It is immediately apparent that this is a sacred record of a different sort. The new mysticism of science is here with an acknowledgment that this grand act of creation, the way we came to be involved ancient stars exploding, spreading matter across the cosmos. These grand themes and an exploration of what happens when Faith and Science dance remains, each time building toward a massive, non-wordal chorus.

Another dance emerges that will play out across the record, which is the synergy and tension between Michael and Lisa's different musical sensibilities. So often on the record Michael elucidates dense prose, rich with meaning and warranting further exploration and Lisa responds with the idea distilled, purified and amplified with tremendous emotional texture. Pay attention to the swelling synth sounds as well, they become a theme and often herald a coming insight, or nod to our collective future. Synths create a massive, expansive scene on this first track. It is very often Lisa's job to deliver the hook. I AM MOUNTAIN is very deep, and also very pop. I suspect it will be heard on radios quite often, and it's the go to get-pumped-up-for-school song in my family.

The second song, The Beat of Her Heart, really sets the stage for the full theme of the record. It is here that the style of the music shifts. Allusions to the Mountains of the Southwest are there, both in musical stylings and a tale about a protagonist who plays a nylon-stringed guitar, his love, and their nemesis. There is an even, laid back steadiness to this track that reminds me most of The Doors. This is a song that explores ideas of loss and redemption subtly, and it certainly does not resolve with a final verse of reconciliation. I have to think this placement of this track was intentional, as it prepares the listener for many somber, desert sounds to come.

My two favorite tracks are the third and fourth: Long Way Off and Wandering. Any song that contains the terms "erudite" and "apophatic mystic" is already exciting to me, and Long Way Off delivers in spades. It is here that we see materialism and empiricism are very useful ways to measure our world, but fail to speak fully of the human experience. The steady march of kick and snare make you tap your feet while you think about the nature of what can be known. We're a long way off, indeed.

Wandering starts with Lisa singing, in a deeply processed voice, "I've been wandering through this world, looking for an anchor to hold me." How many of us feel that way? This is a theme that transcends any subculture. Wandering soulfully explores the ramifications of a culture where we have tremendous knowledge and endless ability to deconstruct, without any clear path to rebuilding. How many people are leaving the Church today? How many people are dissatisfied with pop culture? Who feels secure in their jobs? What's the approval rating for our Congress? Everywhere you look, organizations are crumbling and systems are breaking down. What's next? The final line is Lisa's voice, now clear of any effects, "I've been wandering through this world, looking for a love that might free me." There's that uncashed check again.

Luckily the fat, funky tones of "Let It Go" are here with some advice. We are in a world where YouTube comments represent the means of popular communication. Our ability to deconstruct means we are excellent critics, always ready to take apart the creative work of another. Michael sings "If there's anything that holds you down, just forget it." We will not be able to accept healing until we learn to operate outside this trend of passivity and criticism, and we won't be able to offer healing to others either. Let It Go, and you may find yourself able to respond to the calling of your life.

And so the rhythm of the record is established. Different sounds are explored, but the Mountain theme always returns. Wayward and Torn speaks of the safe places we find, those sanctuaries where we are appreciated for who we are, while God and Country offers sharp criticism of gun culture and war hawkishness. Hither and Yon offers a time of transition, setting the stage for Yesternite. Yesternite is a song of tremendous longing and melancholy. Bring tissues.

Best Part is the most emotionally moving track to me, a somber appreciation of what it means to be alive and aware. This is a song best enjoyed in a still, quiet place. You will spend a lot of time in these two minutes and 43 seconds–your life may even flash before your eyes.

Finally is an upbeat end for the record. It's hopeful, but very cognizant of our missed potential: "We could be free, finally." It is a vision of what happens when humanity transcends self and embraces others. We could be free, but we are not.

Upside Down seems like a hidden track to me. This is a musical exploration and rejects the typical structure of a song. Is there a verse, or chorus? Where's the bridge? Regardless, there is movement. We start floating in space with Michael, who tells us the world is upside down and asks if we see it before pleading to make it right. The song begins to build here, growing and weaving like vines climbing a chain link fence into the sun. After this growth, the song starts to unravel and musical deconstruction begins. There is still growth, but it is a growth of entropy. Almost frantically, the song grows and grows until it is cosmic in scale, the Universe within a song. For me, the eventual reveal is surreal and powerful because layered in this music are my own words, as my axioms  for God are read back to me.

And that's it. There is no wrapping paper, or bow to tie up this package. I AM MOUNTAIN ends in a gloriously unresolved way. We fall slowly back to Earth and are left with what exactly?

This is a record about God, absolutely. There is no way to separate the sacred from this, but I wonder how Gungor's traditional audience will respond to such an expansive, unresolved treatise. There is no saccharine here, but there is a wonderful admonition to grow, explore, learn, and play. This is not a record exclusively for the Church–I imagine Sam Harris would appreciate the themes here as much as I do. The church is welcome here, but this is also a humanist tone, and more. Gungor has torn down old walls and broken new ground.

I am most interested to see who follows.

I AM MOUNTAIN is available on iTunes, Amazon, and anywhere records are sold.


Sounding Better: A Hands-on Review of the Line 6 StageScape M20d

I'm a musician.  I've been playing bass since middle school.  Before I was a musician, I was a sound engineer.  All things electronic interest me, and the place with the most electronics in my childhood church was the sound booth.  Most churches aren't exactly overflowing with volunteers to work a mixer, so I found my enthusiasm and curiosity rewarded with opportunity.  I learned how to balance a gain stage versus a fader.  I learned how to tweak EQ to make thing sound better.  I learned to anticipate cues.

That means I often found myself as the bass player AND the sound engineer for most bands I played with.  As I matured, I stopped bands and stuck mainly to playing at churches.  There is generally a volunteer or three in charge of the technical production in a larger church, so I found that I was able to just be a bass player.  It was nice.

But, I also noticed that volunteer turnover is a reality.  It takes years to produce a sound engineer who is knowledgeable and experienced enough to contribute to audio production in a way that is musical.  You need a person who is equal parts artist and engineer.  Those people are rare.  When you have one, any sound system is transformed into a member of the band.  Every note you play sounds sweeter, and the monitors are as clear as a mountain stream.  Word travels fast when one of these audio mages enters a community and every organization with a set of faders begins to court them.  Churches, local theaters, studios and even local bands beg for their time and talent.  There are not enough of them to go around.  We make do with what we have.

Ah, but there are computers now.  In the home studio, levels of sound production are possible today that are astounding.  Products like Garage Band take arcane knowledge and expensive hardware and replace it with algorithms and clever interfaces.  Suddenly a passionate amateur can produce a serviceable recording, and someone who really puts in time and effort may produce a work that deceives the casually listener that it was produced in a "real" studio.  It has been clear to me for sometime that this technology would make it to the world of live sound.

Now it has.  Enter the Line 6 StageScape M20d.  It was announced at NAMM, and I've anxiously awaited a review from the field.  None ever came so I decided to bite the bullet and grab one for my church youth group.  Little did I know I was ordering it in its first week of availability, and that the review I'm writing now may be one of the earliest on the web.  My hope is these words can help someone who is considering this product to make a decision.

Our legacy Mackie setup.

Let's start with why I was so interested.  On Sunday mornings we have good sound.  We're in a large sanctuary with reasonably good mains.  There is a nice, large format Allen & Heath console.  Many channels are run through rack-based compressors.  The musicians have in-ear monitors.  There are dedicated people for sound, lights and lyrics each week.  On Wednesday nights, we aren't so lucky.  We use an aging Mackie mixer with no effects connected to big & loud speakers.  Sometimes we can talk our upstairs sound people into visiting, but mostly we have kind-hearted high school students running the mix.  The results should be familiar to anyone.  The bass frequencies are muddied, resonate and flabby.  Everything is muffled because any attempt to bring back high EQ produces squealing feedback.  Often students complain that they can't hear the vocals–you know it's bad if teenagers think it's too loud.  When the youth pastor stands to speak, the headset mic is either overdriven and distorted, of we get feedback every time he has the audacity to take a step or turn his head.  Right now, someone is reading this and nodding their head.

Now, I can sit at the console and fix all of this.  I can't get the sound I want without compression, but I can at least make it serviceable.  The thing is, I've been running sound for longer than these students have been alive.  In some cases, I've been doing this double their years on this earth.  I can't play bass and run sound though.

The New Hotness: The StageScape M20d

It was time for something better.  The StageScape M20d interested me for a lot of reasons.  First, setup is simple and automated.  The mixer inputs are intelligent-and there are a good number.  You have 12 XLR inputs with preamps and 4 line inputs.  There is also a mini-jack input for laptops, iPods and the like.  When you plug something in, a new input appears on the touch screen.  You then select a preset via icons representing different input types, and move the icon to where it appears on your stage.  Again, this is done via a touch screen–there are no complex menus.  It took me less than 30 minutes to configure a stage environment for our setup.  I suspect I could to it in less than 5 now.

The "stage." Tapping an instrument selects it.

When you select these presets, the mixer automatically assigns a signal chain with processing appropriate for the inputer.  This will be come combination of an input, compressor, noise gate, EQs, limiters and effects.  It's all integrated.  There's no rack, and no miles of spaghetti cabling.  Of course, a complex signal chain can produce great sound, but it adds complexity.  Line 6 has really covered new ground here.  If you select an instrument and press the Tweak button, you get a novel XY interface with plain English terms like "Bright", "Full", "Open", or "Controlled." dragging a finger across this controller adjusts whatever values in the signal chain are required to produce that result.  Even for someone with the knowledge to do it manually, the speed and ease is impressive.  I use the "Quick" mode to get an initial sound before diving into the "Deep" mode where all the controls accessible in dedicated hardware lie.

I purchased the optional WiFi adapter.  This means iPads can connect to the mixer and control it.  During practice, we adjusted our monitors from the platform without the need to shout at a sound person.  The StageScape M20d supports up to 4 discrete monitor mixes.  That also means we can use the 20 second recording function, and then step out into the audience and mix our own sound.

Let me say that again.  With the StageScape M20d you can be your own sound engineer, and know exactly what the audience will hear.  We recorded 20 seconds of a chorus and then sat down where the audience would be and started playback.  You can hear the effects of channel tweaks and the mix as if you were still playing.  You can mute or solo individual instruments.  Once this is done, you have something special.  You have a professional sound.  Suddenly the vocals are clear and present.  The guitar is full without being grating.  The keys are clear without dominating.  The bass and kick are powerful, chest-thumpping and defined.  What was a mess of resonate bass frequencies and feedback is now something else: music.

And here is where it all comes together.  Pressing the "Perform" button puts the mixer into performance mode.  To train someone how to run sound you tell them to touch the picture on screen to select an instrument and then turn the brightest knob to change the volume.  They can also press the speaker icon to mute an instrument.  That's it.  Anyone with a good ear can mix now.  Instead of an intimidating expanse of knobs and faders they are presented with an iPad like touch screen and simple, color coded controls.  There's no way around it, the StageScape M20d is a revolution in sound.

At $2,499 the StageScape M20d is not inexpensive.  However, if you were to build a competitive platform out of traditional hardware it would cost more.  Every channel can be equipped with a professional signal chain.  Did I mention the master bus has a multi-band compressor and limiter?  For churches, bands, theaters and other organizations that need quality sound but don't have a sound genius, I recommend this mixer.  I've never seen an easier way to quickly setup and configure a great live sound experience.