Imagine living in a world where sunsets were never appealing; where time away at the cottage was like doing time; where autumn meant the absence of colour and endless shades of grey. It is painful to consider such a place even for a moment.
“Don’t it always seem to go,” Joni Mitchell sings, “that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” And what if all forms of music drove you crazy, and not just the ones where you can’t make out the words? What then?
Beauty, and creating beauty in one form or another, has a more important role to play in God’s world than many Christian people across Canada may realize. Art needs our sustained attention, creativity needs to be encouraged, and Christian artists need our support. Talk to Keith Kitchen, an ordained Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor and professional musician, and he’ll tell you all about it. Better yet, listen to his CD, Rumours of Light.
“Atheism is a product of urban societies,” Keith says, sitting at his kitchen table in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The conversation had been focused on his home town of Regina, Saskatchewan, and all the good times at the family cottage an hour away at Katepwa Lake. Reflecting on feeling so close to God in the country reminds him of this quote by Richard Wurmbrand. Wurmbrand was a Christian pastor who endured many years in prison in Romania, 3 years in solitary confinement, and went on to found an organization now called The Voice of the Martyrs. One popular way of trying to deny the existence of God is to mentally block out God’s creation by surrounding yourself with your own.
Eject Christianity and hang on to biology and chemistry, informed by the latest version of naturalism, and a human appreciation for beauty suddenly looks bizarre.
Growing up with a Ukrainian Orthodox heritage on his father’s side, Keith gained an appreciation for the connection between Christianity and art early on. And it isn’t a casual connection. He describes beauty as a “powerful apologetic” and part of the package that convinces him to continue to have confidence in Christ. Trying to understand beauty without God in the picture reduces it to something that isn’t very attractive and is actually ugly. Eject Christianity and hang on to biology and chemistry, informed by the latest version of naturalism, and a human appreciation for beauty suddenly looks bizarre.
Affirmation of an Artist
“You have a really nice voice,” Keith’s mother said, back in grade three. He had been practicing Silent Night for the Christmas concert at school and her encouragement made a world of difference. From then on he always had confidence that he could sing. But music was never really something he consciously focused on in the years that followed, it was just something that he always enjoyed. He wrote songs from third grade on. Music was fun. Guitar lessons turned out to be more like a job. “Quitting guitar lessons was one of the best things I ever did,” Keith says.
Coming to faith in Christ in his teenage years, he decided to attend Canadian Bible College, right in his home town. In recent years, the Christian & Missionary Alliance moved the college to Calgary, Alberta, and partnered with The Church of the Nazarene to form Ambrose University College. Back then, as Keith worked on a bachelor of theology degree, graduating in 2000, he also had an opportunity to play in a couple of bands and develop his folk/roots musical style. During these years, he made regular appearances at local coffee houses.
But when his wife, Ruth, became sick and was unable to work he realized that his passion for music needed to give way to more practical concerns. Or so he thought. As it turned out he was hired as a youth and worship pastor at Trailview Alliance Church in Swift Current, just a couple of hours west on the Trans Canada highway. It was very much a positive experience and a musical one at that. He worked and served and led worship at Trailview for 5 years.
Keith’s passion for God and music was certainly noticed by the senior pastor, John Healey. After 4 years the church board gave Keith a two-month sabbatical, and he was strongly encouraged to use that time to make a CD. Dr. John Healey, who now oversees CMA churches in Eastern Canada, is convinced that many Canadians who resist the gospel in a concise verbal form would be much more open to hearing it via an art form. “This is a key time for Christian artists to really shine,” John says.
About a year earlier, Keith had a chance to open for Steve Bell, a well-known Christian musician from Winnipeg, at a concert at Trailview. During the evening, Steve leaned over to him and casually said, “Keith, I think you could do what I do.” The dream had been growing from that moment on, and now he had an opportunity. In a short time he found himself in a recording studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, working with Carolyn Arends and other established musicians.
It amounts to stating the obvious, but Broomtree, his first professional CD, likely never would have been made without the encouragement and support of a lot of people in Keith’s life.
Beauty in God’s World
Every person has a role to play in the church, and every part of God’s good creation was originally placed there for a purpose. Yes, this old world is a mess, and there are many things in it now that do not really belong. But bits of beauty survived the fall, quite a bit in fact.
Keith, and other artistic and reflective types, see the extravagant beauty on the earth as an extremely large hint or clue; a rumour, of a world beyond this world and the God behind this “reality.” Beauty isn’t the only hint by any means, but it is one of the big ones – and it is difficult to avoid. In Simply Christian, author N.T. Wright talks in similar terms, identifying beauty as one of the four main “echoes” of God’s voice. These hints do not, however, lead to certainty – in a technical or mathematical sense – but they do lead to confidence or faith. “It is like light,” Keith says, “you can’t really grab it or hold it…but it is real.”
In “Long Way Down” Keith reflects on the reality of love, morality, meaning, and purpose. The conclusion: A worldview that does not have a place for such basic and essential human realities needs to be replaced. C.S. Lewis’ famous quote emphasizes the apologetic value of sustained refection on these types of things: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it but because by it I see every thing else.”
It is no accident that Keith is emphasizing the artistic hints about God’s existence now. The past two and a half years on the road as a fledgling professional Christian musician have been a challenge in a variety of ways. During that time he has been reflecting on the claims of the “new atheists” – the Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens publishing trio. He has also witnessed several long-time Christian friends and role models give up on the Christian faith. With Rumours of Light he hopes to “sustain Christians who feel lost or discouraged, or feel that they do not really have good grounds to believe.”
Launching a Light Brigade
It is hard to tell if Keith is an artistic and musical pastor or a pastoral musician and artist. There seems to be a lot of overlap between his old ministry and his new one. Some people have told him that his songs help them know how to pray during difficult times, when they don’t know what to say. He talks in terms of helping people love and worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength at his concerts. Teaching is what he enjoyed most as a pastor, and he still does a lot of that as he travels from church to church. Keith’s mission statement, which he says is quite similar to other Christian musicians he knows, reads like this: “To strengthen the church through thoughtful, beautiful, expressions of art and faith.”
Back in 1974, the Gospel Music Association in Canada was organized primarily to serve Southern Gospel musicians in Ontario. Now, with approximately 500 members, GMA encourages a wide variety of Christians musicians right across the country. They are perhaps best known for their annual conference in Calgary, this year on October 25-28, and the Covenant Awards. Keith was nominated for a few Covenant Awards in 2008. In 2011, an additional conference will be held in Cambridge, Ontario, at Heritage Bible College and Seminary on May 6-7. Leroy Harder, the present CEO at GMA, says that making the effort to attend a concert is one of the best ways to support Christian musicians.
Art needs our attention, creativity needs to be encouraged, and Christian artists need our support. In Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning, Nancy Pearcy – who studied at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto – notes that worldviews come to most people via the arts. “Ideas penetrate our minds most deeply when communicated through the imaginative language of image, story, and symbol,” she says.
Christian artists like Keith Kitchen could make a big difference in Canada. Making the connection between the gospel and beauty, communicating the good news in an artistic form, and creating beautiful music that encourages a Christian worldview could help a lot of Canadians turn and return to Christ.
*Photos provided courtesy of Craig Waddell at Gotham City Studios (Vancouver, BC). Keith’s latest work, Restless, is now available.
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