“This Beautiful Mystery” is the latest, and perhaps last album of Christian rock icon Terry Scott Taylor and its message of mortality is one we need to hear.
In George MacDonald’s short story “The Golden Key,” the child Tangle is seeking the “country whence the shadows fall” with the help of the Old Man of the Earth. The old man finally removes a large stone and points to a hole that the child must go through.
“That is the way,” he says.
“But there are no stairs,” the child says.
“You must throw yourself in,” the old man replies. “There is no other way.”
The same can be said of Terry Scott Taylor’s new double album, “This Beautiful Mystery,” a culmination of 40-plus years laboring in the vineyard of Christian music with a quality and reach far beyond that much-maligned artistic ghetto.
There is no other way but to take a journey through its 21 songs — 1 hour and 40 minutes of wit, whimsy, wordplay and, yes, mystery.
Ever since the early days of his band Daniel Amos in the mid-1970s, Taylor has shown himself to be an artist comfortable with exploring the outer edges of the songwriting craft and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.
The Southern California band also known as DA started out as a Christian version of the Eagles but quickly — in the early ‘80s — became an outlet for Taylor’s ever-expanding palette of musical and literary influences, losing a lot of fans along the way with the release of “Horrendous Disc” and “Alarma!”
The fans that have stuck with him through the years — through 14 DA albums and multiple solo albums, plus releases from stellar side projects the Swirling Eddies and the Lost Dogs — are now rewarded with a sprawling masterwork in which Taylor, now 71, wears all his literary, biblical and musical influences on his sleeve.
Flashes of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Moody Blues, Smashing Pumpkins and Jellyfish are all there, but the real wonder of “This Beautiful Mystery” is how much it sums up his long career working mostly in obscurity as one of the nation’s most gifted songwriters.
He’s been doing this for so long that he ends up being his most significant influence.
“I happen to be what they call prolific,” Taylor recently told the True Tunes podcast. “I’m someone who just loves to write.”
Before the advent of modern recording technology, Taylor would doubtless have been a poet, a novelist or a short-story writer. Instead, his songs have become a vehicle for an ever-deepening faith and an ever-widening array of 19th and 20th-century authors. These are all on display in “This Beautiful Mystery,” which explores themes not only from literature but also from theology, eschatology, and, most profoundly, mortality.
In the 2013 Daniel Amos album “Dig Here Said the Angel,” Taylor turned the lens on his own mortality with an almost morbid and obsessive precision. Here, he’s thinking more in terms of his musical and spiritual legacy, especially in songs dedicated to his granddaughters.
“I was thinking, this could be the last (album),” he told True Tunes. “The last one could’ve been the last one.”
For inspiration, Taylor taps into the writings of the aforementioned MacDonald’s “A Great Good is Coming,” as well as G.K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Flannery’s Eyes,” C.S. Lewis’ “Ave Eva” and “Talitha Kum,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “From the Case Files of C. Auguste Dupin.” Taylor’s songwriting on Disc 2 is enriched by this “cloud of witnesses.”
Taylor’s sheer love of word play is most evident on disc two. In “Under the Mercy,” he uses drowning as a metaphor for going deeper into the things of God:
The water is living
I’m not here for a swim
Over its surface
I’ve gone further in. …
The river is flowing
Toward places unknown
I’ll either survive this
Or I’ll sink like a stone.
In “Ave Eva,” a palindrome dedicated to Taylor’s granddaughter Eva, Taylor name-checks no fewer than five beloved children’s authors, including Lewis and MacDonald. Elsewhere, his more adult musings rely on the writings of Chesterton and O’Connor.
In “The Everlasting Man,” arguably the beating heart of disc two, Taylor skillfully has Chesterton in dialogue with St. Francis of Assisi and Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”:
I ran into Chesterton outside the bar one sultry summer day
Roly-poly, sweating, he was wrapped in woolen folds of gray
St. Francis stood beside him, here’s what they had to say
We see that you’ve still got your chest.”
In “Flannery’s Eyes,” he references her short story “Greenleaf” and its charging bull as a metaphor for Christ. Like a rock ‘n’ roll literary critic, Taylor captures the essence of O’Connor’s reliance on violence as a vehicle for grace:
The bull is charging now
He will thrust and open up your side
Embrace him as he violently abides
In a rosary of mystery inside
The glint in Flannery’s eyes
Like the eyes of God watching you.
On disc one, Taylor turns to his back catalog as front man of DA for inspiration. In “Signs & Wonders,” “A Song You Cannot Hear” and “In Our Waning Days,” Taylor sounds like the young man who — in the ‘80s heyday of the religious right, Crystal Cathedral and TV evangelists — regularly skewered the cultural forms of American Christianity that he saw as shallow and hypocritical. Conversant in the discourse of evangelical Protestantism and its focus on the Bible and a personal relationship with Christ, Taylor keeps the best of that tradition — the Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes — and leaves the rest.
He especially has no patience for the dispensational, premillennial end times theology that he once embraced in the early ‘70s — he devoured Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth” as a young convert and once thought Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ — or its latter-day manifestation in the bestselling “Left Behind” series of books.
Taylor’s humor is on full display in the oddball “The High Tech Tribulation Force,” which he describes as the “theme song from My Left Behind”:
The lamb of God’s now an action figure
With one pierced hand he pulls the trigger
As he texts his thoughts on Skype and Twitter
He’s big and bad
With six-pack abs
Barbed wire tat
Reversed ball cap
With his bill in back
He’s a real go-getter!
Taylor’s answer to that muscular eschatology is the more introspective and personal “These Are the Last Days (For You and Me)” and “In Our Waning Days.” Yes, Taylor says, these are the “last days” for those of us who are closer to death than the day before, who are “fallen and crawling to the same finish line.”
If Taylor’s mature theology is most evident in the songs on disc one, it is a theology that accepts and celebrates God’s transcendence in “Signs & Wonders,” God’s beauty in “The Very One I Love,” God’s sovereignty in “I Plan, God Laughs” and God’s holiness in “Deep Calling.”
Taylor, once he puts easy sarcasm aside, ultimately wants his listeners to go deeper into Christian discipleship, to do the hard work of really listening, to follow the way of obedience and even suffering. As a songwriter comfortable with paradox, mystery and contradiction, he’s not asking listeners to go anywhere he himself has not gone in “This Beautiful Mystery.”
Does he have any listeners? And do they have “ears to hear” his sometimes unpopular message? More importantly, can a Christian even get a hearing in American popular culture today? These are questions he addresses with self-deprecating humor in “A Song You Cannot Hear”:
Maybe just to myself. …
When my lips move
Your head turns
In the opposite direction
My heart beats
On the radar
Flying under your detection .
It’s a sentiment consistent with the frustration Taylor expressed 40 years ago in 1981’s “Through the Speakers” — “How can I love you/ Do the best I can/ Through the speakers” — or in 1983’s ode to rock star estrangement, “Here I Am”: “Here I am/ There you are.” Both songs were written at a time when Taylor was spreading his artistic wings and trying to move beyond DA’s first two country albums, influenced as they were by the expectations of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel — where the band cut its musical teeth — and the Jesus movement of the ‘70s.
Although his spiritual journey has taken him to some strange places, as a legacy artist of early Jesus music, Taylor has landed in a place where he can preach to the choir of his Patreon and Kickstarter supporters and not have to spend as much energy trying to explain himself or his Christian walk.
For insight into Taylor’s core beliefs, one need look no further than “The Meek” and the title song. The meek of the Beatitudes inherit the earth — that is true, Taylor sings, but in a way that reverses the values of the world. There’s a sense of both impending promise and doom in the way Taylor sings about the meek. The meek are “easy to defeat” — in fact, they have a “2,000-plus-year losing streak.”
“The vote is in: their future’s bleak,” Taylor sings. “What’s this foreign language that they speak?”
The title song, “This Beautiful Mystery,” is about as close as Taylor comes to worship music. Here he pulls out all the stops to proclaim Christ crucified and risen in one of the most beautiful stanzas in his body of work:
When we could not grasp love this profound
We subdued it with a thorny crown
Whipped it into shape and nailed it down
Sealed the exit from the burial ground.
This is a time of intense scrutiny for American evangelicals. Taylor himself has been among their most consistent critics. But he also is a product of that subculture. In “This Beautiful Mystery,” he embraces and preaches the best of that tradition through the idiom of popular song.
–Stephen Huba is a longtime journalist and religion writer who lives in eastern Ohio.