AS THE RUIN FALLS by Phil Keaggy

I stumbled back onto this, a few days ago, after a gap of 30 years or more, and it stirred up a lot of thoughts.  (Also, I was rather surprised about how well I remembered it, and could sort of sing along, despite its fairly intricate construction.)

Here are some of the thoughts it brings to mind.  I’ve already and elsewhere touched upon the winds of change in the 1960s: renovations, reawakenings and renewals in the global Christian church, and the inevitable innovations it brought to forms and expressions of music both in ‘worship’ and in reflective/performance/message-conveying formats.  For bad or good, this spawned a new industry in the 60s and 70s –the ‘Christian music industry’.  Mostly bad, it began to seem, since capital-minded corporations suddenly discovered a new niche market to exploit, and surely that couldn’t be good?  Initially excited by what was being produced –and I’m talking mainly ‘performance’  output here – I soon sort of lost track of what the industry was all about, and sadly felt that in many ways the industry itself had, too.

While the interest lasted, we were listening to, and awaiting the next albums of (in the UK) artists like Graham Kendrick, Malcolm and Alwyn, Garth Hewitt, Len McGee; and (in the U.S.) Chuck Girard, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Michael Omartian, Annie Herring et al.  It’s easy now to dismiss it as a bit of a sad business.  To underline my dismissal of if, I’m remembering too a concert I attended in Cardiff about…eight years ago, with Pierce Pettis and Julie Lee (see my blog posting on ‘You Did That For Me’), two artists I discovered at Greenbelt Festival.  It was a very poorly attended gig, so there was plenty of opportunity to chat with them.  While both were fervent believers, they had also both resisted being drawn into the world of the U.S.Christian music industry.  The murky world, they implied.  The wonderful Julie Miller, also, had started her recording career in that world, but had managed to escape it to eventually disseminate her great songs more widely.  It was Richard Hines (fellow teacher at Colegio San Andres) who taught me that we do best to resist creating sub cultures –Christian poetry, Christian art, Christian diets, Christian music industry etc.  –and instead, try being ‘salt’ in the world.(Hmm. Discuss)

So, as I’ve said, it’s been easy to dismiss those early seventies Christian albums.  But this is what hearing Phil Keaggy again reminded me: that there was much within that industry that had both quality and integrity.  Just think, for instance, about the earnest and honest anthems of Keith Green; think too of the exquisite vocals of Matthew Ward –while several of his songs suffered from cliché, there is a handful in his canon that stand any stringent test of time –his ‘psalms’, ‘Love’, ‘Summer Snow’, ‘Noah’ (isn’t that a Keaggy song too?).On this side of the pond, real craftsmanship in such as Adrian Snell…

And Phil Keaggy himself: so, let’s get back to this song.  Keaggy was/is a consummate guitarist, and the exquisite guitar-work on this track attests to that too.  But most interesting too is the ambition of actually attempting a musical version of this sonnet by CS Lewis!  Its fluid syntax, its enjambements, its condensed and complex images do not lend themselves easily to musical adaptation!  But this is as brave and close to brilliant an attempt as you can get, and the 40 years since its composition only confirms that for me.

While there may be several levels of explicit and implicit meaning in the sonnet, at the very least it’s about an awareness that much of what we are and do is motivated by self gratification.  CS Lewis clearly highlights (and Keaggy underlines) that this often leads us into mere delusions of knowledge, our ‘flashy rhetoric about loving you’ keeping us from the true experience of the real thing – ‘I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek…’ Like many good at-the-core Christ-infused creations, there is the hint of the end-of-self and the divine redemptive mercy and grace that rescues us from that state.  We get this in the final lines and Keaggy captures the note of hope in the final couplet (‘For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains/You give me are more precious than all other gains’) with a minor to major change mirroring the gratitude of the rescued.

Speaking as someone who has dabbled with “collaborations with CS” myself (!! –songs for my ‘Pilgrim’s Regress’ dramatic adaptation, pale little efforts by comparison!)I recognize what an impressive achievement this lovely song is .  I’m very glad to have stumbled back across it, after far too long.

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