“WHAT does it mean to live as a Christian?” asks Mark Scandrette, the American activist, author, coach, and member of the Nine Beats Collective of musicians and thinkers, who are appearing at Greenbelt this summer.
I scratch my head and murmur something about loving others. “Yeah, love, right,” he replies. “That’s true, of course; but the average Christian doesn’t usually get any more precise than that. They may start talking about how they became a Christian, then perhaps who is and isn’t a Christian. . .
“But if I ask my friend who is a Zen Buddhist priest what it means to be a Buddhist, he talks to me about the Eight Fold Path and the Four Noble Truths as a clear answer to what he is trying to do with his life.”
Historically, the big question for Christians, he says, “has been who is and isn’t a Christian rather than ‘What does it mean to follow Jesus?’”.
The Nine Beats Collective, self-styled as a group of “troubadours, poets, rebels, provocateurs, sages, and activists”, propose that the Beatitudes — the nine “Blesseds” (though often thought of as eight as a result of omitting Matthew 5.11) of the Sermon on the Mount — are the closest thing we have, he says, to “a table of contents for the way of Jesus”.
“I like to use the phrase ‘It’s been hidden in plain sight.’ The Beatitudes have always been there for us, just not properly acknowledged for what they could be to Christians: a new way of being human.”
NINE Beats have taken the Beatitudes as the inspiration, first, for the name of the collective (nine Beatitudes, nine beats to a bar in the compound triple-time signature, used several times on the album), and then to create a 26-track double album, Nine Beats to the Bar, and a resource (set to launch at Greenbelt), The Ninefold Path Notebook.
“For those intrigued by the album and its vision of the Beatitudes as an alternative calling and rhythm for the world, we wanted to offer a way to further explore these nine beats,” Mr Scandrette says of the resource.
Bible for today: Mark Scandrette is the Nine Beats Collective’s thought-leader and creative consultant“For each beat we look at the invitation of the Beatitude, thinking of them as steps to recovery, and an invitation to walk the way of trust, lament, humility, justice, compassion, right motive, peacemaking, surrender, and radical love.
“How do the Beatitudes offer us a whisper of another world, a different rhythm to walk? For each beat we also suggest three practices: habits and experiments in living this countercultural way. Essentially, it’s a resource for personal spiritual formation, very much centred in practice-based learning.”
THE project is the idea of Steve Bassett, the creative director of SGM Lifewords (formerly the Scripture Gift Mission), which seeks to increase access to the Bible around the world. He set out to listen for “the whisper of today” which might spark his latest creative project.
“In the ’90s, the story of the prodigal son kept coming through in contemporary culture: the idea of coming home seemed to be prescient for society at that time,” he says. “In my thinking about what would speak to this generation, I kept coming back to the Beatitudes, and the way they seem to address an empire that’s broken, offering an alternative, a kind of manifesto for new world order. This was before Trump and Brexit; the project gets more and more relevant with each new political shockwave.”
What followed was a voyage around the world, from Copenhagen to Kampala, and Birmingham to Brooklyn, bringing together artists and thinkers to rearticulate the Beatitudes in a way that would lead to new “cultural interaction” with the teaching of Jesus.
One reviewer has described the album as “a cultural melting pot of soul, RnB, rock, pop, poetry, jazz, funk, classical, and more”. Certainly, for the listener, the experience is almost disconcerting in its diversity, jumping from spoken-word tracks by the playwright Eric Leroy Wilson to instrumentals from the award-winning Danish composer Mikael Rahbæk Andreasen, then on to ballads from the Mid-West singer-songwriter Heatherlyn, to a reggae-meets-African-dance-hall track written by the Ugandan artist “Ambassada”.
More “soundscape” than traditional album, the music is interspersed with recordings of news bulletins; the effect is unsettling and intentionally dystopian. Another recording is of the wailing, mourning lament of South African women, which Mr Bassett had stored on his phone from the time he visited Johannesburg at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (he was present at a children’s graveyard, where more than 20 new graves needed to be dug each day, many of them unmarked). The name of this track is simply “Child 613”.
AT THIS year’s Greenbelt, Mr Bassett and Mr Scandrette will be joined by several others from the Collective, including the “dirty gospel” singer and Methodist minister the Revd Vince Anderson; Mr Andreasen; Heatherlyn; Mr Wilson; the UK theologian Matt Valler; the musician and Nine Beats album producer Tony Bean; and the jazz pianist and musical director Martin Trotman. Other guest musicians will also take part in a special showcase on Saturday.
One thing Nine Beats to the Bar is “definitely not”, Mr Bassett says, is a pop worship album. “I agree with [the U2 frontman] Bono, who recently criticised the lack of honesty in Christian music: art must address the struggle, as well as the hope, if it is to be authentic. And so we made sure we had a lot of secular voices in the project, to stop us veering into Christian tick-box land.”
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that congregations will be singing songs such as “Blessed are the Undead” in years to come. With lyrics by Mr Valler, the track acknowledges the cultural importance of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows such as The Walking Dead, taking the ninth beatitude (”for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”) as a jumping-off point to imagine the good zombies of the apocalypse, the “heroes whose ghosts will not die”.
“The album needs to be understood as an artistic response to the Beatitudes,” Mr Bassett explains. “It’s not about them; but, instead, we’re looking at what’s in between them, in the cracks, and how they speak to our own personal, social, political brokenness.
“Greenbelt is going to be a great place for us to let loose some of the music and ideas that we’ve worked on, because the Greenbelt audience intuitively goes for these gaps, the spaces in between.”
IF THE album explores the gaps, Mr Scandrette, the project’s chief thought-architect, “is playing right on the notes”, he says.
He is currently working on a set of online resources due to launch in the autumn (including material from The Ninefold Path Notebook, with group activities, video content, and more) to help people gather their own groups and work through the nine “beats” together: “designing their own experiments to put the beats into practice,” he says.
Most of Mr Scandrette’s work in the United States is on spiritual formation, creating “practical paths for discipleship, by which I mean the process of how do we participate in life in light of the gospel.
“So, for the Nine Beats resource, I’ve taken each Beatitude and asked: ‘What’s the human ache in it? What is the critique of empire here? What’s the reality that Jesus is calling us into?’ In each one, Jesus is naming an illusion that brings pain and misery into our lives, and invites us back to what’s real and true.”
In Mr Scandrette’s exposition, each Beatitude has been repackaged to emphasise the practice, and to reinforce the Beatitudes as a “nine-fold path in the way of Jesus”. Each one even has a corresponding body posture to drive the practical message home; so, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes the way of trust (open hands posture); “Blessed
are those who mourn” becomes the way of lament (head in hands); “Blessed are the pure in heart” is the way of right motive (jazz hands); and so on.
NINE BEATS purposefully chose language “that people can relate to”, Mr Bassett says. There is also a sense that overtly Christian vocabulary has been avoided: “ancient wisdom” is preferred to “biblical”, for example.
And he relished being able to engage more deeply with the secular world and the music press, as a result of not having first to wade through the negative associa-
tions that people have with organised religion and, specifically, the Church.
“There is nothing disingenuous about this,” Mr Scandrette says, when asked how he would respond to questions about smuggling the gospel in through the back door. “There’s no disguise. It’s actually about greater accuracy. We actually use words incredibly imprecisely.
“So, in my culture over in the States, for example, the word ‘Christian’ is bandied around by politicians to say something about themselves, but they are definitely not using it to mean ‘little Christs’. So, I want us to say what we mean in a way people can understand. . . But words also wear out, and some just need putting away.”
He is not the first to say so. Gandhi, speaking of “Christianity as the West understands it”, once said that “what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.”
The Nine Beats project may be a thoroughly modern interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, and yet it joins a long tradition of those, from St Francis of Assisi to many outside the Church, who have found in it something utterly essential.
In the same speech, Gandhi went on to say: “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount, unadulterated, and taken as a whole.
“If, then, I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’”
The Church Times is Greenbelt’s media partner www.greenbelt.org.uk.