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Posted on Dec 8, 2012 |

Review: Martyrs Prayers

Review: Martyrs Prayers

It’s hard to review this album because, let’s face it, no one is going to say, “How about we pop in that CD of songs inspired by martyrs?”


It’s not that kind of music.


What it is, is a fascinating project by Michael Glen Bell and Duane W.H. Arnold, based on Arnold’s 1991 book Prayers of the Martyrs. Each of the 10 songs is based on a prayer by a Christian martyr. Part of a larger effort called The Martyrs Project, the CD is meant to make the words of ancient (and modern) martyrs urgent and vital, and to ask the listener, “What would you die for?”


The CD liner notes tell what is for a Catholic a sad and rather puzzling tale about middle-aged musicians who were full of zeal for Christ in their youth, but who have found that life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. Some, it seems, belong to no Christian group at all, while others have gone from commune-living “Jesus freaks” to mainline Protestants. They all have faith in Christ but not all of them, it seems, in much else. For them, the Martyrs Project seems to be an attempt to connect with men (all the martyrs on the CD are men) who died for a faith that was real, strong, concrete, and clear.


And Catholic. Almost all the martyrs were Catholic, although you can’t always tell from the liner notes (“Little is known about Clement, a Christian living in Rome…” the note on Clement begins. Not much except that he was the very first Apostolic Father and a POPE) and more than one were martyrs whose martyrdom came because they died rather than betray the Church.


So it’s difficult for a Catholic to evaluate the intentions or success of the project, as in one way the people who produced it seem to want to ignore a large part of what the martyrs were martyrs for.


That aside, is the music good? There’s a lot of musical talent on this disk. From the web site:


A group of world-class musicians have signed on to record this project with Bell and Arnold… including Phil Keaggy (CCM icon and always listed in the top 50 guitarists in the world by Guitar Player magazine), Glenn Kaiser (Rez Band), Randy Stonehill, Kemper Crabb (The Vigil), Ronnie Ciago (percussionist, now with Circa – former members of Yes), John Sferra (drummer with Glass Harp), Jennifer Knapp (Grammy nominated singer/songwriter), The McCrary Sisters, Margaret Becker (Grammy nominated singer/songwriter), Wayne Berry (Home at Last), Mike Pachelli, and Thom Daugherty (The Elms).


So yes, the music is good. Bell does all the lead vocals, so if you don’t care for his folksy, “non-singer” sound, you’ll won’t care for the album. While a variety of contemporary and rock styles are represented, most of the songs have a similar slow, contemplative sensibility.


My two favorites, Ri and Sadoth (each song is named for the martyr who inspired it) have a harder, rock-inspired sound. I was not familiar with either martyr, so the album did its work for me — I looked them up. St. Sadoth, Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, died with 128 companions at the hands of the Persian king Shapur II in 325; Martyr John Ri was killed in 1839, one of many Koreans catechized by French priests in the middle of the night to escape persecution.


Bonhoeffer (yes! a non-Catholic) combines contemporary, rock, and a chant-inspired melody in what might be the most musically ambitious piece. Romero (another Catholic bishop) seems to be the project favorite — there are three versions of the song on the disc (one each in English, Spanish and Portuguese) and a video on the web site. It’s an alt-rock guitar ballad with some moody sound effects.


The lyrics are very simple, taken straight from the martyrs themselves. “Let my blood be a seed of freedom, let my blood be a seed,” sings Archbishop Romero. “We beseech You to help and defend us, We beseech You to help,” sings St. Clement. The songs make you think and invite you to pray. They would be the basis of a great study group, or a mutlimedia presentation (indeed, The Martyrs Project offers a live presentation), or a daily home reflection.


But again, for this Catholic, something is missing. None of the martyrs, Catholic or not, died for an amorphous Christ and an invisible Church. They died — Bonhoeffer included, he was a serious Lutheran! — for a Church with a history and a doctrine and a tangible presence and fully human, fully divine head who established it and wanted it that way. Cardinal Newman famously said that to be deep in history was to cease to be Protestant, and this CD illustrates why: How anyone can revere these men as martyrs but ignore most of what they believed is mystifying.


Perhaps that mystery is what’s behind the plaintive, questioning tone of even the hardest-rocking of these songs. There’s no vigorous outrage at injustice — no St. Polycarp scorning offers to let him off because of his old age, no St. Charles Lwanga and companions choosing death rather than becoming male concubines for their king, no Bl. Miguel Pro blessing the communist firing squad and dying as he shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!”


In short, Martyrs Prayers is a heart-felt, interesting, well-produced CD with great musicianship, but one that may leave you wishing for something more.


Martyrs Prayers, Saints and Survivors LLC; also available as a digital download.


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