A Little Theological Light Verse

18 November 2010

Regarding what follows below: I considered offering a little apologeia for theological light verse, but in the end I gave up.  You will either think that it is its own justification, or you will think that no justification is possible.  Either way, blathering on about why I do it seemed pointless and self-indulgent.  So without further ado, gentle reader, I give you a little theological light verse.

**

“The Bible’s all one book,” they said,
“So a word means the same in all places.”
“Abide in the ship or ye cannot be saved,”
Said I — and imagine their faces!

**

Predestined before the earth’s foundation
Long before any Scripture’s read:
Not just their souls; their interpretation’s
Predestined before the earth’s foundation.
Beware the children of the Reformation
If you would not have the meaning of “dead”
Predestined before the earth’s foundation
Long before any Scripture’s read.

**

When Calvin told Beza to heed to the text
Beza held fast ’til his life was all spent
But old Calvin slapped him when he got to heaven:
“The text of the Institutes ain’t what I meant!”

**

Predestinate terminology’s
The greatest hazard to the text
To ever rise.  Some always see
Predestinate terminologies
As antidotes to uncertainties,
Compared to the dangers of which, a perplexed,
Perdestinate terminology’s
The greater hazard.  To the text!

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Update

1 October 2009

I have updated the Gospel Discussion page, for those of you who follow such things. Not much new info, if you’ve been reading here regularly, but maybe organized a bit better.


Psalm 99: A Riddle

30 November 2008

Psalm 99 poses a very difficult problem for modern readers.  See if you can spot it:

The LORD reigns;
Let the peoples tremble!
He dwells between the cherubim;
Let the earth be moved!
The LORD is great in Zion,
And He is high above all the peoples.
Let them praise Your great and awesome name
He is holy.

The King’s strength also loves justice;
You have established equity;
You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His footstool
He is holy.

Moses and Aaron were among His priests,
And Samuel was among those who called upon His name;
They called upon the LORD, and He answered them.
He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar;
They kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them.
You answered them, O LORD our God;
You were to them God-Who-Forgives,
Though You took vengeance on their deeds.

Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His holy hill;
For the LORD our God is holy.

The problem for us comes in the portion in green.  If we know our history, we’re on the alert immediately.  We want to say, “Wait a minute, God!  Moses did not keep Your testimonies and ordinance; he struck the rock.  Aaron didn’t either; he made the golden calf.  Samuel raised evil sons.  How can You say such a thing about them?”

If we’re not familiar with the history, we still have trouble with the passage, because in the same breath, the Psalmist says that God forgave them, although He took vengeance on their evil deeds.  So if there were offenses to forgive, if they were in fact guilty of evil deeds, then they clearly did not keep God’s testimonies and ordinance — right?

Wrong.  Obviously wrong, because the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say otherwise.  But we cannot find it in our hearts to speak of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel in the way that the psalm speaks of them.  We believe, right down to our bones, that it is an inaccurate, self-contradictory description.

In other words, we do not have the mind of Christ on this subject; we don’t see it as God does, and can’t speak of it as He does.

And yet, this is a psalm.  We are supposed to sing it, just like the other psalms.  Here, then, is the riddle: How can we sing it in good conscience, with understanding? How can the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say, in the same breath, that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel kept God’s testimonies and His ordinance, and that He forgave them and avenged their evil deeds?  How is that possible?

When we can answer that, we will know a little more about God’s forgiveness than we presently do.

And maybe we’ll become better at forgiving each other, too.


Hymns or Contemporary Music? An Exercise in Missing the Point

23 November 2008

A lot of ink, and no small amount of (metaphorical) blood, has been spilt over whether worshippers today should sing hymns or contemporary music.  I don’t intend to rehash the debate here, because I think it’s a stupid argument.  The people on both sides have so thoroughly overlooked the central questions on worship music that it’s a bit like arguing about whether to allocate federal funds for free condoms in public-school sex education classes.  (Sex education by someone other than parents? Federal funding?  Public schools?)  If you’re already that far gone, fighting about condoms is pretty much beside the point; the whole premise of the debate is deeply wrong several times over.

So it is with worship music.  First of all, the entire debate is largely conducted in terms of musical taste, which is already wrong.  Worship is offered to God; the question is not what makes us feel good, but what He wants to hear.  Blithely offering what we want to give is the mistake Cain made, and we’ll fare no better than he did.  Realizing this leads us to a second temptation.  I think it was Anne Lamott who said that you can be pretty sure you’ve made God in your image when it turns out He hates all the same people you do.  As of people, so of music: if you think God’s tastes entirely match your own, chances are pretty good that you’ve confused God with the person in the mirror.

Second, the question of whether it’s better to sing hymns or praise choruses is pointless, because the first priority is to sing psalms.  Try on these passages for size:

How is it then, brethren?  Whenever, you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  (1 Corinthians 14:26)

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled by the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing heartily to the Lord….  (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing to the Lord with grace in your hearts.  (Colossians 3:16)

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing psalms.  (James 5:13)

Might it be that there could be extrabiblical psalms, songs we write today to sing to the Lord?  Of course.  Paul’s use in his letters of early Christian hymn fragments seems to make this point pretty clearly.  But — as Doug Wilson so pointedly puts it — while the commands may potentially encompass more than the Book of Psalms, they surely do not encompass any less.  Leaving aside the question of what songs we might write, we have 150 that we know we’re supposed to sing.  Most of us could count on one hand the ones we could sing all the way through, and have a finger left to scratch our heads wondering how we ever missed these clear commands in Scripture.  Best we get started; we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Of course, we have the lyrics, but not the music.  We have to supply the music, and this has the potential to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something older? The first answer is “something older.”  Not because it’s better — although it might be — but because we already have it. The sooner we get started, the better, and it turns out we’re not the only ones who have ever thought about this.  There’s a rich Western heritage of music for the Psalms: we have medieval chant, the Scottish Psalter, the Genevan Psalter, the Irish Psalter, and various others.  The music in these psalters is older, and we’re going to have to live with it, at least until we can replace it.  But such is the price of several centuries of disobedience; if you don’t like Renaissance and medieval music, consider it motivation to get cracking.  It makes no sense to tell God “We’ll be happy to obey You in this matter just as soon as we’ve come up with some music that suits our tastes.”  Pfui.  We’ve got music; let’s use it.  Who knows, we might even decide we like it (I have).

Of course, there’s no reason for our composers today to rest on the laurels of the medieval church and the Protestant Reformation.  We should be writing music for the psalms, making our own contributions to the worship of the Lord, and this, again, threatens to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something in an older style?  But to argue the point in terms of temporal categories is, once again, already wrong.

The question should be, what sort of music best fits the psalm we’re working with?  Since God has given us the lyrics, we have to honor them; therefore, the music should augment the lyrics, not blunt them.  Repetitive variations on a theme in the lyrics should lead to repeated variations on a theme in music.  Happy lyrics that call for cymbals and shouts should lead to loud music with cymbals and shouts.  Mournful confession in the psalm should lead to mournful music.  Angry and discordant lyrics should lead to the same sort of music.  And so on.

Once we begin to consider these issues, then the debate over contemporary or traditional music might actually be worth taking up again.  But personally, I suspect that when we begin to consider these issues, most of the present debate will wither away, revealed for the silly distraction it always was.


The Sociology of Vigorous Music

16 November 2008

The Western church has tried, and failed, to reform its worship before, or at least failed to make the reforms stick.  The reforms lasted long enough to give us some wonderful music, but we are now trying to recover it, because in the intervening centuries, we lost it.  The historical trend is from the rich and complex to the simplistic and predictable, from vigorous, robust singing to plaintive, introspective howling.

Why?

One answer is that we are sinners, and we always resist God.  He requires music to match the songbook He gave us, and we simply don’t deliver.  His songs are profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction and instruction in righteousness, which is to say, they are often comforting, but always uncomfortable.  We prefer to be comfortable, so we don’t sing God’s songs.  Not singing His Word, we are free to write our own, comfortable words, and compose for our comfortable words a lazy musical score that does not challenge us.

That’s one answer, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d like to add to it, though, because I think it’s missed something important.  I do this provisionally, in the spirit of a trial balloon, and if this intrigues or outrages you, I would love to hear from you.

When we backslide, there are always two reasons why: first, because we wanted to go backward, and second, because we didn’t move forward.  The answer above addresses only why we wanted to go backward.  I’d like to address the second reason, and begin to discuss how to move forward.

Many of these older, more complex, vigorous tunes are dances.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Queen Elizabeth dismissed the Genevan Psalter as “Genevan jigs.”

So where are the dancers?

If everyone sits in pews, or even stands in place, and sings the original ‘Genevan jigs,’ the incongruence between their music and their actions will get to them sooner or later.  Eventually, they will slow down the music to match what they’re doing with their bodies.  If even a few people are dancing, though, the sight and tempo of the movement will reinforce the vigor of the music.  We’re going to have to recover worship dance along with worship music, if we’re going to succeed in reviving vigorous psalm-singing.   It’s a package deal — the physical movement demands a certain sort of music, and the kind of music many of the Psalms require naturally demands that the body get up and move.   It’s unnatural to sing a jig without somebody dancing a jig.

I don’t know that there’s biblical precedent for making dance a part of the ordinary liturgy, but there is definitely precedent for worship dance on an ad hoc basis — Miriam (Exodus 15) and David (2 Samuel 6) come immediately to mind.  In order for that to be an option, a vigorous tradition of folk dance has to be part of the ongoing culture of the church, otherwise we won’t have the skills when we need them.

Music and dance go together.  There’s one other ingredient, though.  Vigorous dance has a strong, even martial quality to it.   This is no accident: in premodern cultures, there’s no separation between dance and martial preparation.  The martial arts of premodern cultures are all related to the cultures’ dances, and although not all dance is martial preparation in these cultures, martial preparation almost invariably involves dance.

Why?  I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I can speak to at least one of them from my own experience.  Dance is sustainable (physically, but more important, psychologically) in a way that harsh preparation for combat is not.  Dancing with a partner or a group reinforces general athleticism, distancing, timing, coordination, and so on, but it does these things in a relaxed and joyful way.

Contrast the dance to, say, hard sparring.  Sparring — even friendly sparring — takes a certain amount of focused bad intentions, it hurts, and it’s really rough on the body if you’re older than 25 or so.  You can only do so much of it.  Dance doesn’t have those problems, and so one of its functions is to involve the whole community in sustainable martial preparation.

It works the other way too.  As long as there’s no artificial barrier between martial preparation and dance, the culture’s dance tradition never fully loses contact with its martial traditions, and is in no danger of becoming decadent and effete.

So here’s the problem as I see it: cultures the world over demonstrate that a martial backdrop, vigorous dance, and vigorous music all go together.  Lose part of the package, and it seems that you’re in some danger of losing the whole thing.  If we’re going to have vigorous music — and keep it this time, instead of losing it after a century or so — I suspect we’ve got to figure out a way to have the whole package.

All of that said, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and the church is unique among the cultures of the world in that regard.  So how does this work itself out for us?


Crawdad Theology

2 November 2008

Go to the crawdad, thou theologian; consider her ways and be warned.

Ever caught a crawdad before? I don’t mean with a trap or something; I mean the fun way, picking your way up the streambed with your jeans rolled up, catching them one at a time with your bare hands.

If not, you can meander over to YouTube for a quick tutorial. Pay particular attention to the ten seconds of explanation starting at 0:25. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Yeah, it’s important.  Go on, seriously.  It’ll only take a minute.

And the preacher spake a parable unto them, saying,

“Hear then the Parable of the Crawdad:

Among the slow creatures of God’s earth is the lowly crawdad, but when danger threateneth, lo! it doth propel itself backward — only backward, mark ye well — with great speed.    Behold now the genius of the lowly crawdad: that when the hungry bass doth menace it, the crawdad doth reach forth its claws and menace in turn its persecutor.  If its persecutor be unafraid, and doth make to molest it further, the crawdad speweth forth a mighty surge of water, and thereby doth shoot itself right speedily backward from peril.

But this, the crawdad’s great strength, doth surely become a most grievous weakness when its hunter be a man, nay, even a stripling child.  For the child doth cleverly place his hand behind the crawdad, and then doth menace it in front with aught he may desire, be it a stick, his hand, his foot, or aught else, and lo! the crawdad doth fly at once backward into the child’s waiting hand.

And though that crawdad may then punish the child severely with its claws, yet the determined child may work all his desire upon the crawdad.”

And the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, for though he counted himself among the theologians, he yet reckoned them as witless crawdads.

What does this have to do with theology?

History repeatedly demonstrates that theology often proceeds in the same way as the crawdad.  Person A does something.  Person B perceives it as a threat to orthodoxy, pepperoni pizza, and all things sacred and holy.  Person B faces the threat and waves his claws menacingly, and if that doesn’t work, he shoots away backwards, putting as much ground between him and the threat as possible…paying no attention at all to where he’s going.

Take, for example, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies that plagued the American church in the early 20th century.  The fundamentalists were right, yes?  The Red Sea really did part, Elijah really was caught up into heaven in a fiery chariot, Jesus really was born to a virgin, really did die on the cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, really rose from the grave, and will return bodily to earth…all that.

When the modernists forsook the historic Christian faith, they had nothing left but Christian charity, and they proceeded to practice it with a vengeance.  Salvation no longer came from the cross, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus; now it came only from Christian action in the world.  So they focused on what came to be known–at least pejoratively–as “social gospel” concerns.

The fundamentalists, recognizing that the liberals had hijacked Christian charity, swarmed into society in an outpouring of Christian influence not seen since the conversion of Constantine.  They outdid the liberals in every good work, the better to adorn the gospel they so zealously defended.

Well, actually, no they didn’t.  Mainly, they withdrew from the discussion, and gathered together in desolate places for the Prayer of Elijah and corporate sulking.  In fact, in many quarters, feeding the poor became identified with liberalism, and woe betide the young fundamentalist pastor who tried to engage his congregation in the “social gospel” work of applying James 2:14-17.  Although we have begun to recover, there are still significant portions of the church where James’ “pure and undefiled religion” has fallen on hard times, where doing good works for unbelievers outside the church walls brings down accusations of “social gospel” and “human good,” and a deep suspicion of doctrinal compromise.

What happened here is simple.  The fundamentalists were afraid to touch anything tainted with liberalism.  In their zeal to avoid error, they shot backwards crawdad-fashion, right into a whole new set of errors.  Why did it happen? Because the fundamentalists were idol-worshippers. They were more devoted to not being liberal than they were devoted to humbly serving God.  Even as they defended the inspiration of the Bible, they abandoned its clear teaching at key points.  The resulting schisms, social impotence, and neglect of the poor became their bitter sacraments.  To return to the Parable of the Crawdad, the mighty claws of doctrinal orthodusty were completely inadequate to rescue the church from its surrender to idolatry.

There are plenty more examples where this one came from.  Martin Luther, so taken with the freeness of justification, abhorred James, as if the Bible would somehow steer him wrong. The ascetics, terrified of the corruption in the world around them, rejected God’s good gifts in favor of a life of self-torture.  A number of modern Christian movements, desperate to avoid any hint of legalism, have embraced licentiousness, drunkenness and debauchery with a zeal that would make a Corinthian blush.  In every case, this is the outworking of crawdad theology, the idolatrous worship of anything but that — whatever that might be in the particular case.

What should we do?  Simple.  Obey the Bible. All of it.  All the time.  Believe what it says, and do what it commands.

Sound easy?  It’s not.  Because we have a very hard time with this, there’s another key point.  Humility. Lots of it.  Occasionally our adversaries are entirely wrong about everything.  But not very often; usually they reject our position because they see something that offends them — and far too often, there is legitimate cause for offense. But we don’t listen, because they’re wrong about something else, something more important to us.  It takes humility for a fundamentalist to sit down at the table with a modernist and just listen to the man tell him, “You’re so concerned about people’s souls that you’ll let anyone do anything to their bodies.  You think it doesn’t matter, as long as you can tell them about Jesus.”  It takes more humility to overlook the obvious exaggeration and seek the grain of truth in the accusation.  It takes still more to admit — even to ourselves — that it’s there.  And the brutal truth is that it usually is.

It’s hard, messy work, and it requires eating generous helpings of crow, but that’s what God has called us to. Anyone who says different is the sort of person that Jude, 2 Peter and 3 John warn us about.


News: NaNoWriMo Begins!

1 November 2008

The merry maniacs at the Office of Letters and Light are off and running again, assisting thousands of volunteer lunati…er, writers all over the world.  The challenge?  Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, specifically the month of November.

Just the first draft, of course…

To give you a vague notion, 50,000 words is the length of Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In other words, a little on the short side for a novel these days, but plenty of room to express literary genius, if there happens to be some lying about.

Not any too likely, in my case, but you never know until you try.

My darling wife did did it successfully — in 21 days, too — last year.  It looked like so much taquito-fueled mad fun that I’m joining in this year, in my Copious Free Time.

In between moments of sheer panic, I intend to have a rollicking good time doing this, but there is also a larger end in view.  When I was in high school, I read the essays of the existentialists, and had an awful time trying to figure out what they were saying.  I remained mystified until I read The Stranger, Metamorphosis, and The Fall, particularly the first of those three.  Fleshed out in story, the pieces of the philosophy began to fall into place.  Then, as now, existentialism struck me as a bad idea — not merely a misstep, a sticking-a-roman-candle-in-your-eye-on-a-drunken-bet bad idea — but the real lesson wasn’t about existentialism at all: no amount of exposition brings an idea to life as well as a story.

I had read enough bad fiction with a moral, though, to be suspicious of deliberately trying to convey a message with a story.  Surely, I thought, it would be impossible to do it on purpose.  One would have to tell the story for the story’s sake, and let the moral leak out as it would.

That romantic delusion came crashing down when I encountered the work of Andrew Vachss.  He’s a man on a mission, and meant his first published novel to be “a doctoral dissertation without the footnotes.”  Did I mention that he’s now published more than twenty, plus a couple collections of stories, the odd graphic novel, and so on?  Clearly it’s possible to do it on purpose and succeed.  (By the way, Vachss’ work is not for the faint of heart.  I believe in what he’s doing, but I was compelled some years ago to purge my library of his work because of the way he goes about it.   Fair warning.)

Like Camus, Kafka and Vachss, I have some things to say that I believe are better conveyed in fiction than in my usual essays and articles.  The ability to actually write more than a scene at a time has been an elusive target for more than ten years, and NaNoWriMo has a reputation for turning people like me into novelists.

I’d appreciate your prayers.  If you want to make taquitos for me, I won’t say no to that, either.