What is the distance between Sunday and Monday mornings? The answer, for Casting Crowns' Mark Hall, became painfully clear during an afternoon of reading through the MySpace pages of the kids in his youth group. Prompted to go there by a student, Mark's heart sank as he read their messages to the world, truths about themselves that didn't gel with the truth they embraced at church.
It was in that place of disheartened discovery where The Altar and The Door—the third studio project from GRAMMY-winning band Casting Crowns—began to unfold.
"When we're at the altar, everything makes sense," Hall says. "We know what we're supposed to do. We know how we're supposed to live. Everything's black and white. But somewhere between the altar and the door, when we leave and go out into our lives, it all leaks out, and everything gets gray again. The Christian life is the journey between the altar and door, trying to get the things you've got in your head, into your hands, feet, into your life. The Altar and The Door is all about the journey. The realization on the journey, the struggles and the victory of seeing it as possible."
Co-produced once again by Mark Miller (Sawyer Brown), The Altar and The Door taps into the same 'real life, real faith' vein as the Casting Crowns' 2004 debut and 2006's Lifesong. The same 'all out on the table' honesty, achingly real lyrical depth and unforgettable melodies that have captivated audiences around the world. Only this time, Casting Crowns— the fastest selling, platinum-reaching Christian artist in history—has never been more progressive musically. And lyrically, Mark Hall has never been more intentional.
"Once we got into the recording," Hall says, "I knew we were in for something different, a more progressive approach to the music. These songs sounded different in my head; they've been a big challenge for us as a band. And the music definitely sets the tone for the whole project, but for me, it always comes back to the message. I always think lyrics first."
The biblical footing for The Altar and The Door can be traced back to Psalm 1, Hall says.
"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this law he meditates day and night…."
"The whole album funnels from this passage," Hall says. "Imagine the man in this verse totally breaking down, but just a little at a time. First he's walking, then standing, and eventually sitting, just slowly shutting down. He doesn't crash suddenly—there's no sudden crash in the Christian life. The 'crash' is just the fruit of a slow fade."
He continues, "If we find ourselves 'walking' in the counsel of the wicked, it's often supported by the things we're listening to, the things we're taking in, the things we're watching and clicking on. Sooner or later, what we choose to put into our lives affects us and starts coming out of our lives. Then we're not 'walking' anymore. Instead we become a walking contradiction. The way we live confuses the people around us, and that, to me, is how we find ourselves 'standing' in the way of sinners. If something doesn't change and we don't make a turn around, we're eventually 'sitting' in the seat of the scoffers. We find ourselves in the back row of the church watching everybody with their hands in the air, and thinking, 'Surely they don't have anything I don't have,' when in fact they do. And we don't even realize it, because the fade is so gradual."
The songs of The Altar and The Door strike a bold chord that the Christian life can and should be so much more than that. "When we have an ongoing, developing relationship with Jesus, life is not about me, my wants and my needs," Hall says. "It's about being the hands and feet of Jesus in other people's lives."
"Slow Fade," a surprise sonic feast (don't miss the flute!)—marks the regression that happens when Christians aren't living intentionally. "People don't crumble in a day. You don't fall, you fade," Hall explains. "In your mind, there's that pride that says 'I'd never do that'… but you don't just do it, it's a slow, series of compromises, little ones that go there eventually, until you're sitting in a place you'd never go, doing something you'd' never do… and yet the way you're living totally makes sense to you somehow because you're so numb."
"I know you've cast my sin as far as the east is from the west
And I stand before you now as though I've never sinned…"
In "East To West," Hall tackles the all-too-familiar skepticism with which we humans embrace forgiveness. "We have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness," he says. "We cut ourselves and it heals, but the scar remains. Sometimes we think God treats sin like we would if we were God, and that he handles forgiveness like we would. We know he forgives, but we can't accept that God chooses to forget and relinquishes his right to avenge."
And "Somewhere in the Middle," the lyric that poured out after Hall's disheartening afternoon on MySpace, reveals the acclaimed songwriter's lament. "Seeing the antithesis of what was being proclaimed at church and what was really going on with my kids didn't make me angry or frustrated. It just made me hurt for them and how stuck out there they feel and how they don't know what else to do but to try to fit in."
Somewhere between contented peace and always wanting more, that line between the altar and the door…
In all honesty, he says, "It wasn't just about them. The end result in that lyric is my own lament that I could have a greater friendship with God, but I don't…. It's the frustration of my own life. Why in the world do I have to force myself to spend time with God. If I had an everyday friendship with Jesus, I'd be a better encourager, I'd be a better forgiver, and I wouldn't be as selfish as I am. …God has blessed me with amazing self-awareness, a firm grasp of the obvious, but I don't always 'get' it."
It's this kind of honest intentionality that is the core of The Altar and The Door, Casting Crowns' most daring project to date. A collection of songs that dare to mark the distance between Sunday and Monday mornings, between the content of our heads, the content of our hearts and the disconnect between in between.