Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

11 June 2020

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.

No Way Out But Jesus

6 June 2020

In my first post on the George Floyd killing, I focused on peaceful means of change after the fact. In my second, we looked at a scenario that involved intervening in the moment. Let’s talk a little more about that: What is our duty in the moment? Whatever led up to it, when a downed, restrained man, clearly no longer a threat, is being killed right in front of me, what is my duty? 

Shall I yell at the killer? Take a video with my phone? Is that it? Is it really enough to document the crime so somebody can maybe punish it after victim has already died? Or am I called to do something more effective to save his life?

If everybody involved is a civilian, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We need to remove him from the guy’s neck — now. Failure is not really an option, so the only question is how far we’ll have to go to put a stop to the situation. If yelling at him or shoving him works, then great. If it takes a knockout punch or a broken bone to prevent him from murdering the downed man…so be it. Seems pretty clear to me. Now maybe the attacker is much bigger and stronger than you. Maybe you don’t have much of a chance. Even then, isn’t a man’s life worth some effort? Don’t you wanna at least try?

But what if the attacker is wearing a badge? Historically, we virtually never permit resisting the officer, even if he’s plainly in the wrong. In the moment, the officer has an enormous amount of leeway to decide what’s appropriate. After the fact, of course, those decisions are theoretically subject to review. But honestly, review is often unlikely, and evil legal doctrines like qualified immunity are regularly used to prevent serious consequences even when the officer is found to be in the wrong. 

It’s a tough balance to strike. On one hand, we don’t want to live in a society where everybody on the street feels justified in assaulting the officer on the scene if they think he’s doing it wrong. That way lies madness. At the same time, we don’t want to live in a society where a badge confers the ability to murder someone in broad daylight, and no one will put a stop to it. In case you missed it, that’s what we have.

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed, and there is no way out of this apart from Jesus. We are past the point where we can loot Christianity for some guiding principles, secularize them, and then call them “human values” or “common sense.” The secularization process takes out something important, the the resulting mishmash of conflicting directives lacks moral authority. Again, in case you missed it, that’s what we have. How’s that working out for us? What we need instead is people at the scene who can hear the Holy Spirit and make Solomonic decisions on the fly. 

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) Nothing less than a real return to God will do. 

Let’s be about it.

We Will Deserve It

4 June 2020

Coming back to the George Floyd incident, here’s the scenario that’s keeping me up at night:

Suppose there had been three armed combat veterans in the crowd. Suppose they decide they didn’t fight terrorism overseas to let this nonsense happen at home, and they take it upon themselves to do something about it, right now? They spread out, draw their weapons, and demand that the officers get off him.

What next? With their own pistols in weapon-retention holsters, the officers don’t stand much of a chance, and they have to know it. Maybe it ends without bloodshed. Maybe somebody stupidly goes for a gun, prompting a very brief shootout. The veterans may well get shot by other officers, and are probably going to prison…but then, maybe not. What happens if the jury refuses to convict? 

If such men, even one such man, had been on the scene, Floyd would probably be alive today. We might have lost a few officers who were killing a man who was already down, cuffed, and clearly no longer a threat. We might have lost a heroic veteran who was willing to step in. But — tragic as all this would be — would it be an improvement over what actually happened? How many of us are just a little more likely to be the person who steps in today than we were a week ago?

We’ve had some limited instances of that kind already (think the Bundy ranch standoff back in 2014). The day an incident like that goes viral — and if we keep going like we have been, it will happen eventually — we will be crossing a wide line that there’s no easy way back from. After that, the police force becomes an occupying army; principled civilians become the resistance. People don’t call the police for fear of what predatory (or simply scared) officers will do to them. Police don’t respond to some calls because of what might be waiting in ambush. Criminals thrive, and prudent people on all sides become ready to shoot first for their own safety. I don’t want to live there. Do you?

When that kind of confusion grips a nation, it is a divine judgment (see Judges 7:22, 2 Chronicles 20:22-24.) If we come to that point, none of us will be able to say we do not deserve it. We are a government of the people. Every officer who puts on a badge, does so in the name of every person of voting age in that jurisdiction. Anything that officer does is done in our name, and we pay him to do it. They are not doing these things; we are doing these things.

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9)

Coddling Ourselves

29 May 2020

His name was George Floyd.

I wasn’t there. I’ve watched as much video as I can get my hands on, but that only goes so far. I’ve been present at scenes that would look very different if you started the video a few seconds sooner. I’m acutely conscious that I don’t know what I don’t know. At the same time, there’s no denying what we do know: a man was on the ground, cuffed, and a police officer knelt on his neck. Not by accident, in the middle of a fight, for a moment to get the cuffs on. Not to hold him down because he was a danger to himself or others. But long past any point where it might have been necessary or reasonable, long past the point where he lost consciousness, long past the point where the paramedics on scene asked him to move so they could check Floyd’s pulse, the officer was still kneeling on his neck. 

We must have effective police protection; we don’t want to live in a society where the criminals run the streets unmolested. At the same time, we also don’t want to live in a society where…

  • a police officer with no reason but a personal grudge puts an old man on a domestic terror watch list, and consequently ruins his reputation and his business (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a retirement-aged ex-con has his legitimate business destroyed by constant harassment from police officers determined to drive him out of town (one of the officers in question told me the story)
  • a pastor, pulled over in a routine traffic stop, has thousands of dollars–a cash gift donated to support his ministry to the poorest of the poor–stolen from him via civil forfeiture (the pastor is a friend of a friend)
  • police officers arrest a man at his place of business, beat and torture him for hours (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a young woman pulled over in a late-night traffic stop on a deserted road is cuffed to her steering wheel and raped by the officer (jurisdiction near me; the woman is a friend of a friend)
  • a young man, known to be unarmed and threatening no one, was attacked, beaten, cuffed, choked, repeatedly threatened, and died in custody (jurisdiction near me, I know a family member)
  • a young man, badly injured in a motor vehicle accident, lying on the pavement screaming in pain, was repeatedly kicked and told to shut up by responding officers. He was left lying in the roadway for nearly an hour before finally getting ambulance transport; he died of his wounds (two of my friends were involved in the accident and witnessed the incident)
  • a police officer, arresting a mouthy but compliant drunk man, stood him up next to the open back door of the cruiser, then (after looking around to be sure there were no witnesses) kneed him in the groin. As the man collapsed, retching, the officer shoved him into the back of the car for transport to the station (the officer’s partner was a teacher of mine and told me the story)

In all eight of the above cases, nothing bad happened to the officers in question. No investigation, no charges filed, not so much as a news story. To repeat, we don’t want to live in a society where criminals run the streets unmolested. Especially if the criminals in question are wearing badges. 

Remember, I’m not a reporter or Internal Affairs investigator; I don’t sit on a civilian review panel or work for Amnesty International. I don’t go looking for this stuff. I’m a middle-aged citizen; the cases I listed above are just incidents I’ve happened upon in the course of 25 years of ordinary adult life. The victims include white, black, Asian, Arab. While race is a factor, this is about power without accountability. The badge gives power over citizens of every race, particularly if they’re poor; that power can often be abused with impunity.

Consider Minneapolis as a case in point: before George Floyd, we had Philando Castile and Justine Damond. Is race a factor? Obviously; Castile’s killer was acquitted. It took the killing of Damond—a blonde, white, yoga instructor visiting from Australia—to get the first-ever conviction of an on-duty police officer in that jurisdiction. (And I suspect her identity as a foreign national was key to getting that conviction.) Is race the only factor? Clearly not, or Damond would still be alive.

The problem isn’t that most police officers are bad. The problem is that we aren’t weeding out the bad ones effectively. The wide discretion that comes with the job attracts a certain number of violent predators, and our system of checks and balances is failing. We’re using “Most officers are good people” as an excuse for failing to deal with the bad ones. How’s that working out?

Peaceful means of change are available and can work, but only if the majority gets involved. That needs to happen, because the alternatives are not attractive.

Effective action requires repentance in multiple dimensions. The uninvolved majority must repent of inaction and willful ignorance of the evil things that are being done in our name. We must also repent of our willful ignorance of the ugly realities that must be dealt with to keep the streets safe. For most of us, a police officer accused of misconduct could say, “Look, you just don’t understand what it’s like out there, what it takes to keep you safe!” — and he’d have a point, wouldn’t he? If we’re going to provide effective review, then we need to understand. It’s one thing to pay cops to arrest bad guys; that’s fine. But it’s morally bankrupt to pay cops so we don’t have to know. It’s past time to stop coddling ourselves. 

Meanwhile, many protesters need to repent of doing things that are cathartic, but not effective. If your point is that everybody, including police, should respect other people’s basic rights, looting a bunch of stores is not the best argument ever. One of the basic tenets of classical Christian just war theory is that the violence must be used toward a clear, attainable, and righteous end. Tackling the officer off George Floyd’s neck meets those criteria; walking out of a burning Target with a TV and a new pair of Nikes does not. It’s too much, too late, and aimed in the wrong direction.

We have to stop demanding that Someone In Authority swoop in and fix it. We are a government of the people. We are in authority, whether we want to be or not. So let’s do the thing. It’s time to clean house. Recall the elected officials in the relevant chain of command. Give their replacements 6 months to show some progress; recall anybody who isn’t helping. Make it clear that we don’t want an inquisition; the job is to attract good officers who want to work with other good officers, and weed out the rest. Lather, rinse, repeat until we get results. Having participated in recall efforts, I can tell you that this is going to be a lot more work than sitting on our collective butts at home and ignoring the problem. It’s going to be more work than setting cars on fire and looting the local Target, too. Thing is, it can work. Isn’t it time we did something effective?  

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed. So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) We have peaceful means of change in our hands. Let’s use it before it’s too late.


19 May 2020

Let’s talk about shame.

In today’s psychotherapeutic culture, we have a rich conceptual language and vocabulary for internal states. When I mentioned shame two sentences ago, you probably thought about an internal feeling of shame. Over the past few years, we have also begun to speak again about shame as an external experience, something that someone else can do to you. (Hence the discussions of fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and so on.)

Once upon a time, public shaming was how societies regulated themselves, to a degree unheard of today. Under that system, there was  no vindication except public vindication. The shame was public; the vindication had to be as well. When the psalmists called on God to defend them, they were asking God to definitively, publicly forcing their enemies to bow the knee and admit that they were wrong.

That was what it meant to be vindicated by God.

And conversely, if that didn’t happen, you were shamed. You could know you were innocent, but that did you no good; everyone else thought you were guilty and treated you as guilty. Avoiding this ugly fate is what “let me not be ashamed” (a common prayer in the psalms) means. No one sat serenely, calmly assured in himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong, even though every one else believed he had. No, they did what Job did: Cry out to God to show the world their righteousness!

Before the cross, this was just common sense. Jesus destroyed the entire system of public shame. By being convicted and shamed by the system, He definitively demonstrated the injustice of of the system. If it can convict God Himself, the system is irretrievably flawed.

What God did next introduced both a new form of vindication, and a new way to live. 

God vindicated Jesus in such a way that the chief offenders didn’t have their faces rubbed in it. It wasn’t in any way unclear — Jesus rose from the dead — but neither was it entirely public. It’s true that “these things were not done in a corner” as Peter said in his sermon, but at the same time, Jesus did not conquer His enemies and make them grovel before His feet. The twelve disciples did not ascend twelve thrones and rule Israel. The risen and victorious Jesus did not march into Caiaphas’ house and Pilate’s court and force them to admit that they had failed in their duties.

If you wanted to know whether God had vindicated Jesus, there was enough evidence that you could be sure. And if you didn’t want to know, you could pay off the guards, as the Jewish leaders did, and just go on with your life. You could kick against the goads, as young Saul of Tarsus did.

By this semi-visible approach to the resurrection, God the Father introduced a new kind of vindication in the world, where you can be definitively, decisively vindicated by God in the eyes of heaven, and you can be sure of it even now on earth…and yet no one will be forced to acknowledge it. This form of vindication forces the earthly powers to reveal whether they are seeking the truth or not. It makes them tip their hand, and that’s a beautiful thing. 

Our challenge is to live in the confidence that we have been vindicated by God, even if others refuse to acknowledge it — to ignore the social proof and trust God. This is the example Jesus sets for us, and Paul explains.

Trust that God will vindicate you visibly at last, but if Jesus can wait until the last day, then so can you. 

When God Needs Correcting

13 May 2020

In the course of a study on Philippians 3, I ran across this study on σκύβαλα (the Greek word rendered with the inappropriately genteel “rubbish” in verse 8). I commend the article to your attention; it’s well worth reading in its entirety. I’m going to quote the final paragraph here, because in it, the author does something really odd (the underlining is mine):

In Phil 3:8, the best translation of σκύβαλα seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between “crap” and “s**t.” However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate. The NET Bible, along with a few other translations, grasp the connotations here, while most modern translations only see the term as implying worthlessness. But Paul’s view of his former life is odious to him, as ours should be to us. The best translation, therefore, is one that picks up both worthlessness and revulsion, and probably a certain shock value.

Did you notice that sentence in the middle? “God said one thing, but it’s more appropriate to say something softer, because our feelz.”

Of all the literally damned nonsense.

God knew His audience and English sensibilities from eternity past; He said what He said. If He’s bruising your feelz, it’s not by accident. Why would we presume to correct him with a “softer” expression?

Model yourself after Jesus and those who follow Him, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Talk how God teaches you to talk. You should not be sloppy; do your homework (which is why I recommend you click through and read the whole article, actually — it’s a great example of solid exegetical work.)

You should not automatically go for the reading that best fits your sensibilities. Your sensibilities may run to cucumber sandwiches or more in the shock jock direction; none of that matters. God said what He said.

Do your homework, and then don’t lose your nerve


Bandana Morality

5 May 2020

I have been reluctant to add to the din around COVID. There’s too many people pooling their ignorance already, and even the experts are rapidly changing their minds about various key details like how it spreads, how fast, and the best ways to stop it.

Let’s begin by accepting that we actually know very little. Most of the expert recommendations at this point are based on theory — sound theory, sure, but theory, not actual clinical studies of this disease. The experts have a general idea of how diseases like this behave, and are making their best guesses (which, let’s face it, are likely to be better than my guesses, but they’re still guesses). It’s a new disease, and we have to study it.

This is one of the central insights that let to modern science in the first place: You can’t just sit in a chair and extrapolate from first principles; God made the world with an endless capacity to surprise us all, even the experts. The clinical studies to confirm/disconfirm the guesses will come, if someone cares to fund them, but good science is hard, and expensive, and takes quite a bit of time. Like experience, it tends to arrive shortly after you need it. 

Whether you should trust the experts, and which experts, and how far you should trust them, is a question for another post. (Likewise the question of whether you should trust giant media companies to select your experts for you.) The only thing I’ll say about that here is that you should do a quick idol check: if the paragraphs above bothered you because they implied that the experts might all be wrong, you need to look at that. The Tacoma Narrows bridge fell into the gorge; the Challenger fell out of the sky; thalidomide fell into disrepute. These things did not happen because of a change in fashions; the experts were catastrophically wrong about the way the real world behaves. If you look to experts for your security, you’re going to be disappointed.

You’re going to have to make decisions in the absence of complete information. You do that every day, but now you’re being forced to admit it. God is reminding us that the realities of James 4:13-17 are always with us:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”

The question of the day is, shall I wear a mask when I leave home? For some of you, your public health authorities are answering this question for you. Assuming you have a choice, here are seven things to think about:

  1. Remember that good ethical decisions are founded on facts, and a number of the salient facts are in question. Someone disagreeing with you on a point of fact (and therefore doing something different) doesn’t make them a bad person. “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:4)
  2. Uncertainty does not justify selfishly ignoring others’ safety or carelessly ratifying the latest trend in public panic. If the primary driver of your decisions is your personal convenience or reputation–repent. God sees your heart; you can’t use the public uncertainty for cover with Him. Love your neighbor; esteem others better than yourself. Make your decision from that place.
  3. If you believe that leaving home without a mask is a foolish risk to your family, or recklessly exposes your neighbors to danger, then wear a mask. Don’t violate your conscience.
  4. If your neighbors are terrified and wearing a mask would make them less afraid, it is permissible to accommodate them by wearing a mask, even if you think it’s stupid. Think about it: if you were taking a meal to a shut-in with a pathological fear of blue shirts, would you wear a blue shirt? Of course not. If the need of the moment is to get the man some supper, then change into the green shirt, and deliver the food. Keep your priorities straight.
  5. It is not loving to coddle pathological fears forever. At some point, a therapist, a minister, or a good friend should show up at the shut-in’s door in a blue shirt, and help him work through it. How and when to do this is a matter for much wisdom and prayer. This is to say, there will come a day when you go out without a mask. Unless you’re the very last person in your city to take off the mask, someone is going to be uncomfortable with your decision. Let them be uncomfortable.
  6. If your primary reason for wearing a mask is that you can’t handle people looking askance at you, then take it off. Bowing to peer pressure and fear of public shame are unworthy of a follower of Jesus. Anything you do, in your whole life, needs a better reason than that.
  7. Listen to God about all of this. Make your decision prayerfully. And having made it, be bold! God has not given us a spirit of fear.



A Summary on Worship

28 April 2020

What follows is an excerpt from a letter to a fellow pastor who asked me for some help with the discussions on worship that are happening in his church.

In my first pastorate, I had to build the foundation for church music from the ground up, because they didn’t sing at all. So just getting to the point where we sang anything required some teaching.

When talking about standards for worship, I have discovered the hard way that a preface is required. Our worship is accepted before God’s throne for the same reason that we are accepted before God’s throne: because of Christ. So sing off-key in your shower or in the living room with all the kids beating rhythm instruments out of sync, and know that God accepts your worship. When we talk about improving our worship, it is important that no note of condemnation creep in, as though God rejects what we’re doing now, but if we’ll just work a little harder, then we will be accepted. No indeed. We are fully accepted in the Beloved already. But we are not all grown up yet. Standards in worship are about growing in maturity, blossoming into walking worthy of the acceptance God has already lavished on us.

That said, I approach worship music from two basic angles of attack. The first one is just straightforward obedience to New Testament commands. In other words, we need to stop asking “What do I want to sing?” and start asking “What does God want to hear?” Since Abel, the determining factor in all worship is what God wants to receive, and since Cain, we’ve been insisting on offering what we want to give instead. (I find this shift is key to getting the congregation to discuss worship well. Without it, the whole discussion is just a battle about whose preferences should win out, and that’s useless and divisive.)

But what does God want to hear?

One of the answers to that is “the Psalms.” We are told that we should sing Psalms in the NT (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam. 5:13). Of the three passages, only one is a direct command. The other two are descriptions of a Spirit-filled life — but one presumes that the traits characterizing a Spirit-filled life are desirable and should be cultivated. We are not told that we should sing only psalms (in fact, the Psalms themselves tell us to sing a new song). The range of meaning of the word “psalms” may be broader than just the 150 biblical psalms — but it certainly doesn’t mean less than that. So the 150 furnish us a starting place, a primer for what God-honoring worship music can be.

I had someone bring this home to me about 12 years ago, and I set about in earnest to learn some singable version of each psalm. I’m not there yet, but I’m a long way down the road, and it’s been life-changing. Along the way, I’ve partnered up with musicians to create singable versions of the Psalms; to date I can sing about 40 psalms and an assortment of other biblical songs (Song of Moses, Song of the Bow, etc.)

Some implications quickly become apparent when you really try to do this. The first one is that musical style preferences are very secondary. God gave us the lyrics; what the music must do, above all, is match the lyric God gave. For Psalm 150, there really should be cymbals; the music had better be loud and boisterous. For Psalm 51, it had better not be. Psalm 23 can be sung as a march (as in the Genevan setting) or as a lullaby (as the setting in Sing Psalms has it) — both are accurate representations of major themes in the psalm. In fact, I started a sermon on Psalm 23 last year by singing both versions back to back and then asking, “Which one of those is true?” and going from there.

A serious effort to sing the psalms also means leaving a lot of your prejudices behind when it comes to what constitutes good worship. If you come from a sing-all-10-verses-of-the-hymn background, you’re going to hate Psalm 136 (so much repetition!). If you come from a sing-the-chorus-15-times background, you’re not going to know what to do with Psalm 18, because the information load is just huge. (A musician working with us made Psalm 18 into a cycle of 5 songs that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, or all together as a single unit. It takes 23 minutes to sing the whole thing, and it took him nearly 6 weeks to write.)

Of course, we are not Hebrews, so we don’t speak Hebrew; we translate the language. We also don’t sing Hebrew music; we do a culturally appropriate translation in terms of ethnomusicology as well. But we ought not to mangle the psalm text in order to try to make a 3-minute pop song (or a 4-verse Common Meter hymn) out of it. In other words, it needs to be good translation, and that means that it will be musically different from what we’re used to. God means to transform our music, and the Psalms are one of the tools that He will use to do it. (By the way, Matt Jacoby, the founder of Sons of Korah, talks about this process in an interview that’s on one of their CDs. It’s worth hearing.) As we submit ourselves to the demands of rendering each psalm well, we will become better composers, better musicians, better worshippers.

I should warn you that my own personal revolution regarding worship started exactly here, with seeking to obey the NT instruction on singing psalms. I had no idea what I was getting into; I was just trying to do what God said I should do. As always, when you write God a blank check, He’ll take you places you never dreamed….

I said there were two angles of attack. The second one is the book of Hebrews. The
basic orientation I take is outlined in the paper I presented at a plenary session for GES National Conference back in 2010, called The Forgotten Sanctuary.

In a nutshell, I believe that Hebrews tells us that in our gathered worship, we are before God’s throne in the heavenly tabernacle. I believe that gives us a good set of guidelines for choosing what’s appropriate in worship, and what is not. I can say it better now than I did back then, and in simpler terms: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what we’re seeking to do, in worship as in all else. So when we see what His will is like for heavenly worship, that tells us what earthly worship should aspire to.

This has gotten long enough, so I’ll stop here. Of course I can recommend bibliography and all that kind of thing if you like — I didn’t come up with all the above all by myself. Happy to do so, but I know you’re busy. Let me know what you want. If you got as far as this, thanks for indulging my longwindedness. I certainly hope it was helpful.



Going to Extremes

21 April 2020

I had occasion to speak on Deuteronomy 14:22-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on March 22nd. Owing to plague-driven necessity, the sermon was pre-recorded. You can find the video link here. If you prefer audio, see below.

You might also want to read Speaking with an Edge.

The Tail, and Not the Head

17 April 2020

In matters pertaining to human growth and healing, the Church has grown notably weak. How can I say that? By comparing where we’re weak and where we’re strong.

What Strength Looks Like

We are strong in basic education. We have always had a substantial number of educated people in our ranks, from earliest days:

  • Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1)
  • Many of the priests were early converts (Acts 6:7)
  • Many of the Ephesian magicians burned their magic books (Acts 19:19)
  • A number of Athenian academics were receptive to Paul (Acts 17:34)

In our the first few centuries after Christ, we rapidly emerged as a cultural leader in education. Today, secular education operates at a higher level than it ever has in human history, and the Church remains a major force to be reckoned with. In many places over the globe, the church/mission school is the only school. In many more, the staff of the government schools are largely Christian, because we’re the ones with a personal sense of mission to the downtrodden and less fortunate, and education is a time-tested vehicle for helping people raise themselves up. We’re such a leader in literacy education, for example, that the (rampantly secular) Rosetta Project used the first few chapters of Genesis as its key text across 1500 languages, because that is the most widely translated text in the entire world. For many languages, they literally didn’t have a choice — nothing but Bible had ever been translated into the language.

Even in the U.S. today, where education is everywhere, Christian schools are a strong presence, and not just for Christians. In many communities, the Christian school is by far the best-quality school in the area. And so in many Christian schools, there is a subset of students that don’t come from Christian families; their parents will cheerfully tell you that their kids are enrolled for the good-quality education. Moreover, our people have been on the cutting edge of training teachers for centuries, from the early monasteries to Laubach literacy training.

This, my friends, is what strength looks like. The world comes to us for the primary product, and for education in producing it, because they need to. Because we’re better at it than they are.

What Weakness Looks Like

Now contrast our track record on education to our track record on human growth and healing. Think about the many needs people have: emotional distress, chronic conditions, acute injuries needing emergency care, long-term debilities that require skilled care, and so on. Where do people go for that? Think about the people who work in health and healing: doctors, nurses, counselors, chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and the countless techs — CNAs, phlebotomists, and so on. Where do those people get their education?

Now it’s true that historically, the Church started the  modern healthcare system. We created the hospitals, and the ethic that drives them. Even to this day, many hospitals have a Christian affiliation, even in a notably secular city like Denver. As I write this, the hospital a block from where I’m sitting was started by Lutherans. There’s an Adventist hospital less than two miles away, and another Lutheran hospital further north.

But while some of the institutions are still at least nominally Christian, where do you go to get your education in caring for your fellow humans? Some Christian programs exist, but an overwhelming number of Christians in these fields go to schools run by pagans. Even the Christians who are overtly committed to the Church being the primary agent of healing in society do this. From me (got my bodywork and trauma education from unbelievers) to my sister (counseling degree from Northwestern) on up the ladder to folks like David Field (psychodymanic and person-centered psychotherapy training) and Ed Welch (University of Utah) and (quiet as it’s kept) Jay Adams (Mowrer), the majority of our healing practitioners get their knowledge, and often their credentials, outside the faith. Even more telling, do unbelievers come to the Christian programs because it’s the best education available? They do not.

That is what weakness looks like: we go to them to get certified; they don’t come to us.

What If?

What if we lived in a world where everybody knows that if you really want to heal, you need to go see the Christians? That world once existed, but it no longer does. What has happened, and how shall we remedy it?

What has happened is two things, calling for two different remedies.

First, there’s a sense in which we are victims of our own success. We have shamed the pagans into conforming to our ethic. You don’t have to be a Christian to start a hospital anymore; anybody can see that it’s a good thing to do. That was not obvious to anyone in the ancient world. Back in the day, when the plague came, Galen (the famous Roman doctor) ran for the hills. Christians stayed and cared for the sick, even at risk of their own lives. Doctors move toward the sick today because we taught them to. We did such a good job that now, nobody thinks of doing anything else. Part of what we need to do about this is reclaim credit where it is due. Today’s secular charity is parasitic on two thousand years of Christian values, and we need to point that out. We need to know our own history, and talk about it.

Second, we have gotten lazy. Because we won, because there’s so much cultural momentum behind healing that the church doesn’t have to push it alone anymore, we don’t. But there are frontiers that we should be pushing. Where is the existing system failing?

  • Indigent patients who can’t get access to care except at the emergency room, and therefore don’t get any care at all until it becomes an emergency.
  • People with mental health needs who can’t afford care or access to necessary medications.
  • Long-term care for people with debilitating chronic conditions where there are no successful medical interventions.
  • What else? Who are the people around you that are falling through the cracks?