Imagine a land overrun by an enemy force; a land where memories of freedom are scarce, but in which you’ve never doubted that you—with your siblings, mother and grandfather—belong. Into this existence comes a bard, a travelling musician, who sings of an island kingdom far beyond the ocean. Though many believe this kingdom to be a myth, Armulyn the bard, sings of it as though he has experienced it. When he sings, he awakens a longing for the beauty of this kingdom, stirring your heart with the joy of homecoming hand in hand with the ache of homesickness. As the song ends, you awaken, aware once more of where you stand, and of the tears wetting your face. With this experience, you take the first step of a long journey in which you will discover not only the reality of this kingdom, but that you belong to it.
This scene from the beginning of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (the first in the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson) has remained with me, even as I’ve read my way through the daring escapes, surprising discoveries, and defining moments of Janner Wingfeather and his family. Janner’s experience listening to Armulyn the bard is the story of my heart, though likely not mine alone. Whether we realize it or not, we too live in enemy-occupied territory, and we too carry within us a longing for something more, for someone: for a king who will set all to right; for a kingdom where everything sad will come untrue. Some of us have found this hope in Christianity. We understand that Jesus is the good King who loves His people and who has saved them from a seeming life that is actually dead to all that is truly good and beautiful. We hold onto the promise of a kingdom where every sad thing will be swallowed up in joy. But we are not there yet, and so it is easy to forget. The world around us can be seen, felt, heard, and smelled, while the King and the Kingdom seem so very much like a fragment of a dream.
Because of this, we need bards who remind us with songs that resound in our hearts, capturing our imaginations with the beauty and reality of the Kingdom. These are the singers and song writers I seek out, and having once found them, I return to their music again and again.
A little over a year ago, a folk-pop influenced band on Noisetrade caught my attention, mainly because of their name, “The Gray Havens.” In hope that a band with a name taken from The Lord of the Rings would follow in Tolkien’s mythopoeic style, I downloaded their EP. As I listened, I found myself immersed in lyrical stories. Stories of a man who brings grays (grace) to a black and white town, of a train conductor who calls any who will to travel his free train, of a lion (whom any Narnia fan will recognize as Aslan) singing the world into being. The Gray Havens’ story-filled songs incarnate the truth I know, deep in my heart, and bring out its wonder in the way that only story can.
Since that initial discovery, I have played their songs countless times, and when I heard that they were crafting a new album, I was eager to experience it. About a week ago, I had my chance. They were in concert at Oxford Bible Fellowship (that’s Oxford, Ohio, not Oxford, England) as part of their 651 Tour*. During our time together, Dave and Licia Radford, who are The Gray Havens, brought out treasures of songs, old and new. Music flowed around us, accompanying the tale of a ship pulled inexorably forward by a golden chain, not dependent on the work of the passengers; of the danger of sirens to passengers on that voyage; of the heart-breaking beauty of mountains; and of a stone that heard the first breaths of resurrection life. Dave and Licia’s voices soared with the passion of their conviction, eyes focused on the beauty of what they envisioned and were reminding us of.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft argues in his book, The Philosophy of Tolkien, that philosophy and literature have an integral relationship, working together like “two lenses of a pair of binoculars.” While philosophy spells out a theory of life, literature “incarnates” it, often with a greater effect on the heart and mind than a philosophical argument. As Kreeft puts it, “Philosophy makes literature clear, literature makes philosophy real. Philosophy shows essences, literature shows existence. Philosophy shows meaning, literature shows life” (p. 22). It is not too much of a stretch to apply this statement to theology and storytelling (be it read, spoken, or sung). Left to itself, theology tends to solely feed the mind. Like philosophy, theology needs concrete expression for its truth to be taken in by the whole person: by the mind and the heart, via the unified vision of the imagination. The prevalence of narratives, poetry and parables in the Bible supports this view. This principle is at work in The Gray Havens’ music, and it is why a year later I am still listening to their original EP (now along with an advance copy of their new album, “Fire and Stone”). Their songs do not just tell the listener about grace, resurrection, redemption, love, longing or beauty. Instead, the narratives lyrically incarnate these ideas in such a way that the abstract concepts are made visible, nearly tangible.
And so it was last week, as I listened to Dan and Licia sing “Far Kingdom,” the last song on their new album, that I thought I could hear the voice of Armulyn the bard harmonizing with their melody as they began,
There is a far kingdom
A ways from here
Beyond the storm and the sea…
We, their audience in Oxford, listened in rapt attention, our hearts resounding with truth-bearing images as the song reminded us of our real Home.
*The 651 Tour (http://www.thegrayhavensmusic.com/) is named after the number of CDs they had left over after fulfilling Kickstarter rewards for supporters. Though their new CD, “Fire and Stone,” won’t officially be released until the fall, it is available for purchase at their concerts, until they run out. I highly recommend purchasing it when you can (the sooner the better).
While you’ll need to attend a concert to hear the songs from “Fire and Stone” before the fall, there are a few ways you can experience The Gray Havens outside of that:
- Stream “Where Eyes Don’t Go,” (http://www.thegrayhavensmusic.com/#!lyrics/cdqj) their EP, on their site and/or purchase it via their “Store” links.
- Listen to “The Stone” (one of their new songs) while watching this lyric video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g80jaVV0hHM&feature=youtu.be )