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My first impression of Fernando Ortega was at the Dove Awards ceremony in 2000. My parents had snagged some tickets for the family, and we drove into Nashville to the Opry House to watch our favorite Christian artists perform songs and receive awards.

When Fernando Ortega and Alison Krauss began to sing "Jesus, King of Angels," I was mesmerized. The quiet power of the moment--the candles, the piano, the harmonizing--made it seem like a monastery had just emerged on CCM's biggest stage. Soon, "Give Me Jesus"--Fernando's take on a black spiritual--was on my list of all-time favorite songs. It's still there.

Most of the 1990s CCM artists and bands I listened to as a teenager have faded from my memory. But my appreciation for Fernando Ortega has only grown. Rarely does a day go by that I do not hear his voice.

Psalm 19:14 is my life verse: "May the words of my mouth be acceptable to you, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer." I pray those words before I preach. I pray them when I write. Fernando's musical rendering of that text includes Philippians 4 (the "Whatever is pure" section of Paul's letter), beautifully expressing my desire to honor the Lord with what I say. I've probably sung those words along with Fernando hundreds of times.


Fernando Ortega and I in Nashville, earlier this summer

Fernando was in Nashville recently, and the two of us sat down for an hour-long conversation that ranged from worship and liturgy to theology and art. His newest album, The Crucifixion of Jesus, is the first in a series that will follow the Christian year.

As we discussed the new album, it was clear that Fernando wanted to leave listeners with an experience. We looked at the art included in the booklet that accompanies the CD: Nikolai Ge's "Christ and Pilate--What is Truth?" from 1890, Gruenwald's image of Christ from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516), Caravaggio's "Crowning of Thorns" from 1607, and more. The inclusion of visual art reveals the intent behind the album: tune out the world's noise, pause and listen, reflect on the crucifixion, and worship the Savior.

Fernando Ortega's music has always been ideal for quiet reflection. But this album is crafted in a way that asks for attention as a whole. It begins with the triumphal entry and ends with the cries of Christ from the cross. In between, Fernando brings ancient hymns to life, such as “Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended that mortal judgment has on you descended?” (1630) and Thomas Kelly's magnificent "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted" (1804).

fernando-ortegaFernando also gives musical expression to some of Christ's sayings on the road to Calvary. The haunting melody he places on Jesus's lips in "Psalm 22" leads to resolution in Kelly's hymn, leaving us with a powerful call to consider the terrible, awesome moment of our redemption. The Crucifixion of Jesus also includes Scripture readings--something new in Fernando's work, and yet another indication that this album is meant to be experienced as a whole, not just in bite-sized chunks you can buy on iTunes.

Because Fernando Ortega has lent his distinctive voice to classic hymns, and because the songs he has written follow in the same vein, his work offers musical and lyrical substance in a world of shallowness and superficiality. Vocally, Fernando stands out because he never tries to. You won't find vocal acrobatics here. He counts James Taylor as one of his influences, and I can see some similarities. But you can tell that Fernando wants you to really hear the songs, and that's why he sings them straight. It's not about seeing him; it's about seeing what he sees.

I asked Fernando to pick a favorite of his older albums, and he pointed me to The Shadow of Your Wings, a 2006 release that moves through the Book of Common Prayer's pattern of grace, confession, repentance, and restoration. As an Anglican worship leader, he believes in pondering truth and repeating words, because the repetition proves formative for the Christian life.

Most Christian radio won't give airplay to artists like Fernando Ortega, Andrew Peterson, or Keith and Kristyn Getty. Quiet songs that demand attention and encourage reflection don't fit the Top 40 Radio format. Fortunately for us, some of the best artistic work among Christians today is on the contemplative side of the Christian life. The Crucifixion of Jesus shows Fernando Ortega continuing to deliver truth unvarnished, with simple and stunning beauty.

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7 thoughts on “Fernando Ortega Gives Us Jesus”

  1. Daniel says:

    Thanks for posting. I have enjoyed Ortega’s music for several years.

  2. Lorraine says:

    Make a Pandora Station with his name as your “station” and you can hear his music and music similar to his ALL DAY LONG!

  3. Scott Riggan says:

    Thanks for this. When people bemoan the state of CCM I always refer them to artists like Andrew Peterson, Jason Gray and Fernando Ortega. There’s some pretty great stuff out there for people who are willing to dig.

  4. Shannon says:

    Love everything about this post except the link goes to Shadow of Your Wings, not the new CD ;)

  5. Gilda says:

    Thanks I often wondered about Fernando make another cd, I am blessed by his music I own several of his cds,witch constantly are playing filling our home with worship

  6. bondservant says:

    The fallacy is that somehow all music needs to be played on the radio. And if it’s not, it’s radio’s fault.

    Radio has always been about what is ‘popular’ – i.e. reaches the most people for its given format so it can provide a living for those who work there who desire to be a part of something other than secular radio. (Note that a station playing Christian music has already made a decision not to play the most popular music, because Christian music is hardly the most popular format). Play something other than the songs that test well with their listeners, and you don’t have a station at all (i.e. not enough listeners to stay in business).

    Simple economics. It even applies to Christian radio (in spite of the fact that ‘the church’ often wants something for nothing because it’s ‘for God.’ The reputation of the church in this area can be so bad that ‘the world’ won’t do business with us). The argument that 95% of Christian radio is awful is to say that those who do listen and like what is played are wrong, and only you – and a few of your friends – are right. And that only those songs played on the radio are successful. (A worldly definition that the church should know better than to use. More on this in a moment).

    This even applies to non-commercial radio, where they do fundraisers rather than air commercials. A non-commercial station isn’t as driven by ratings, but if they aren’t playing what is popular, less people are likely to give… meaning the station either adjusts to what the audience wants, or turn off the lights.

    Again, simple economics.

    Playing what is not popular means not existing at all. And with a very niche format like Christian music (very very small), you only exist with ‘popular.’

    Would those who think 95% of Christian music on the radio is awful prefer there be no Christian radio at all? That’s the most likely option. And if other music like Ortega’s would be successful, don’t you think radio would air it? Why would radio avoid songs that would help radio be a success?

    re: worldly definition. To believe that a song has to be played on the radio to be successful should be an obvious fallacy, but obviously isn’t. People who want to listen to music like Fernando Ortega can, but just not “for free” (i.e. it’s not on the radio). But it’s not keeping them from purchasing his music.

    Which would seem to point to “I don’t want to have to pay for it.” If the music is important enough to comment on, why is it not important enough to purchase?

    The same thing applies to a artist who has a popular song, but none of the other 8-9 songs are played on the radio. This is the way it’s always been.

    One hit wonders typically have an album. Maybe several. One song was successful from a radio standpoint.

    Finally, I would point out that several years ago, radio was playing Ortega and Peterson. Also Point of Grace and Sandy Patti. (We can keep going back). Secular radio also played artists 5-10-15 years ago that they don’t play anymore. The market changes. Peoples’ tastes change. The audience changes. Again, for Christian radio to exist and reach the small niche that exists, it has to change as well. Just like other businesses.

    A song’s success, an artist’s success, should not be based on whether it gets played on the radio.

  7. bondservant says:

    A couple additional comments, if I may. There are only so many seats on a plane. Same thing with a “top-40″ radio format. If you play too many songs, listeners never hear their favorites. The name ‘top-40′ clearly describes the format.

    It’s also not accurate to say the Gettys’ music ‘doesn’t get played.’ Someone else is singing it (i.e. “In Christ Alone.” Geoff Moore and Avalon versions were played in the past. Passion’s version is the current version being played). Actually, the same thing is true about Ortega’s “Give Me Jesus,” redone by artists like Jeremy Camp. The message of those songs, redone in a different style than the original recording (also nothing new) is popular enough to be reaching quite a few people… which ultimately is the point… right?

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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