Church Music Through History

26 April 2009

For many people caught up in the worship wars, the history of church music is presumed to look like this: Generation A comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them.  Then Generation B comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

It is assumed that each generation’s music is the popular music of its youth, and it is assumed that this pattern has gone on since living memory, or at least since Pentecost.

Both of these assumptions are wrong.

In truth, the pattern is only about 200 years old.  For the preceding 1800 years, the church drew on a rich heritage of singing that was consciously shaped, not by the Top 40, but by the needs and demands of worship, and was made consciously different from the music outside the church.

Now, I’m not saying the early church had the whole thing knocked, and if only we’d forget the last couple of centuries everything would be fine.  Maybe our fathers were right, and maybe they were wrong.  But it seems telling to me that we’ve so thoroughly managed to forget what they did that we just assume the way it’s happened since the 1970s is the way that it has always been.  We’ve forgotten 1800 years of the music that nurtured our fathers, and it seems likely that they knew a few things that might benefit us.

I’d love to go off on this subject at great length.  I am preparing to do so.  But I am still in the midst of the preparations.  In the meantime, I would like to recommend a little audio set you’ve probably never heard of.

Some while ago, Duane Garner did a little four-lecture series titled “Church Music Through History.”  The lectures were delivered as part of a ministry training program run by a church down in Louisiana, and but for the miracle of the internet, very few people would ever have heard them.  I would certainly never have heard them.

Thank God for Christendom 1.0, which gave us modern science, a ridiculous degree of wealth, and, in its death throes, the internet.

Garner walks through the history of the church’s music from the beginning right on down to today.  Of course, four lectures is barely enough to give the big picture — we’re talking about millennia here — but he does a masterful job of synthesizing.  These lectures are designed for musical laymen, so don’t worry about getting lost in a tangle of clefs, modes, and dotted sixteenth notes. By the same token, if you want to go further, Garner mentions a number of other resources in the course of his lectures.

Prepare, by the way, to be offended.  As Garner turns the spotlight on poor worship music from the last couple of centuries, it’s highly likely that he’ll be criticizing something you like, something you grew up with.  (His analysis of “There’s Just Something About That Name” was sobering, but hilarious nonetheless.) Don’t feel bad; he did it to me, too.  I was irritated to hear him picking on a song I used to sing when I was a worship team member…for about two seconds.  Then I realized that he was rather clearly right.  I would have wanted to argue more strenuously, but when the weak stuff was being presented cheek-by-jowl with the strong stuff, the comparison was so revealing that I didn’t have the heart to try.

That’s the value of big-picture historical survey.  In C. S. Lewis’ words, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds… by reading old books.”

And listening to old music.  As another friend put it to me a few years ago: “Musicians that aren’t conservatory-trained are pretty much trapped in their own century.”  We are Christians; the pilgrim citizens of the New Jerusalem.  Our culture spans the millennia, and we are a singing priesthood.  We, of all people, should not be trapped in our own century, musically or in any other way.

These four lectures are not a conservatory-in-an-ipod.  Not close.  But they’re a good, good place to start.

So get on over to Auburn Avenue Media Center and buy them.  They’re about a third of the way down the page, and at $1.99 a lecture, you’ll get the whole set for less than $8.

Not bad for a ticket out of your own century.


How to Talk about Marriage and Enemies

1 March 2009

I recently had a conversation with a friend that allowed me to clarify some of my thinking on expressing ourselves biblically and speaking the way God speaks.  I’m grateful to him for the dialogue, and grateful also for his permission to share a portion of our conversation with my readers.  (I actually wrote this particular email, but I quoted him a couple of times, and felt it necessary to discuss the matter with him first since it was a private conversation.) The message has been lightly edited.

Dear [name withheld by request],

Let me start with your statement:

> There are a lot of examples in the Bible that I would not feel free to follow.
> For example, unlike Solomon, I would not describe my wife’s body in picturesque terms
> to anyone besides her, much less in public.  I would be unlikely to write imprecatory
> psalms against my enemies, even if it were permissible.

I would, and have, written and publicly prayed imprecatory prayers, and will again.  As to describing my wife’s body…let me put it this way: Solomon is eminently satisfied with his wife’s body, and he doesn’t care who knows it.  He commands his sons to be satisfied — intoxicated is a better translation — with their wives’ bodies (Prov.5:19) in turn.  I have taken this advice.  I am utterly intoxicated with my wife’s body, and I don’t care who knows it.

I would not go as far as Solomon does, but that is a matter of my lack of talent/maturity as a poet.

If you have a close look at Song of Songs, I think you’ll find that the language, while quite evocative, isn’t explicit in the way we usually mean that word.  Beyond the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman, you’d have a devil of a time trying to draw a portrait of either Solomon or the Shulamite based on the information in the Song — but you know they’re breathless with desire for each other.  You’ll have trouble even telling what’s going on, exactly, at times.  It seems fairly clear where the…um…intimate moments are.  But you’d be hard pressed to draw out more detail than that there is an evocatively described intimate moment.

They know what’s going on, but we don’t.  In other words, it’s the Song of Songs, not the Kama Sutra, nor Playboy, nor a Harlequin romance.  If you come to the Song previously “educated” by those pagan works, then you’ll be disappointed:  “Why does he get so vague just when he’s getting to the good parts?”

I imagine Solomon responding, “I said be satisfied with your wife, not with mine.  What do you want with knowing more about us?  Go and learn each other, and when your lovemaking has the flavor of my Song, then you’re getting somewhere.”

The Song gets us close enough to their love to be warmed by its fire, but not close enough to get burned.

I write poetry off and on, and I can tell you: that’s really, really hard to do.  It’s a lofty goal worthy of a really great Christian poet.

****

You asked:

> Is it your position that anything found in Scripture, anything attributed to or endorsed by
> God, should inform our manner of speech?

I don’t think I’d want to just say yes to this without some elaboration.  “Inform” is the point of difficulty.  If you mean, should we take what God has said into account, then obviously, yes.  If you mean, can we say it, then definitely maybe, depending on what it was, and the circumstances, and who we are.

Yeah, I know — not helpful.  Let me try to clarify.

Proverbs gives a number of guidelines for wise speech.  One of the signal ones is in 26:4-5, which requires answering a fool without getting sucked into his folly, but also answering him in a way that does not permit him to be wise in his own eyes.  If we want a look at what sort of talk does this, there are a few places where wisdom personified talks to a fool, notably 1:22-33 and 8:1-36.  If you’re going to follow the advice that Solomon gives to his sons, i.e., apply 26:4-5, you’re going to have to speak wisely to fools.  On the evidence, that includes some pretty rough language.

Sinking our roots deeper into Proverbs, we find that an important facet of wise speech is ridicule: “As a door turns on its hinges, so turns a lazy man upon his bed.”  It makes sinners look ridiculous — and this is not slanderous, but true, because sin really is that ridiculous.  The thing about this mode of expression is that the lazy fool can’t deny the validity of the comparison — once the image is in his head, he can’t ‘un-see’ it — and he is no longer wise in his own eyes.  This is exactly the point.

Vividness enters in other ways.  If I’m addressing, say, a bunch of high school boys on sexual purity, Proverbs 7:6-27 looks like a good place to go.  The passage is extremely vivid; the movie version would be a very disturbing montage of sex and violence.  It’s meant to be that, and it should be presented vividly — I’m not faithful to the passage if I do any less.  But if I really present that passage as vividly as it deserves, I’m gonna get a bunch of angry phone calls from parents.

The first question to entertain is this: Must we present these passages?
If so, then the second question: Are we free to present them in a way that blunts the force that God put into them?
If we say no, we dare not do that; we must be faithful to the force of the passage, then we’re already most of the way there.  Just presenting things that are clearly applicable today, in ways that are suitably reflective of the force with which the passages are written, will compel some pretty colorful speech.  That sort of speech is therefore not wrong in itself — in fact, it’s required.

Next question: At whom must I aim this speech? In the case of applying Prov.26:4-5, obviously, at the fool.  How do I know who he is?  By studying what Proverbs says about him.

If you undertake a serious study of the characters in Proverbs, what Solomon says about them, and how to interact with them, you will come out carrying a heavy weight of understanding that you must rebuke certain people, and that you must do so colorfully and memorably.  Sarcasm, insults, and invective are among the many tools that are presented for your use within the book.  This is how Wisdom speaks to fools — and above all things, get wisdom.

****

You’ll note I haven’t touched the minor prophets, Jesus, Paul, etc.  We’re getting there shortly.  But first…

****

There are clear NT commands to sing the Psalms, notably Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, and Jam. 5:13.  There are 150 of them, and we should learn to sing them all.  When we do that, and do it regularly, we will be taught by the Psalms.  We will learn to live with our emotions as God teaches us to do.  We will also find that our prayers change, and the things we are comfortable praying for will change as well.

A Christian that is raised singing the Psalms will not be uncomfortable with imprecatory prayer.  Many Christians are uncomfortable — a further damning evidence that we have utterly failed to be educated by the Psalms as we should.  This discomfort is not an overabundance of sanctification; it’s simple squeamishness.  That David and the Holy Spirit prayed these prayers in the Psalms is proof enough.  If further evidence is desired, note that Paul is no stranger to imprecatory prayer (2 Tim. 4:14), nor are the departed (and therefore perfected and sinless) saints of Rev. 6:9-11.

The excuse — and it is an excuse — arises that all these people are in situations that guarantee the righteousness of what they’re doing: David and Paul are Spirit-inspired, and the departed saints are dead and sinless.  Therefore, so the argument goes, they could do these things, but I cannot, because I could not guarantee the righteousness of it in my case.

But one has to ask, what sort of evidence would satisfy this objection?  If the biblical examples of imprecation were in situations that did not guarantee the righteousness of the practice, then the imprecation would be taken as clear evidence that the speaker was in sin.  When the imprecations are in situations where they have to be righteous, that very guarantee of righteousness becomes an excuse not to emulate the biblical example.  The objection therefore stands revealed: it is not a conviction derived from Scripture, but a simple predjudice, an a priori assumption that flesh-and-blood normal people cannot righteously pray imprecations.

And it’s baloney.  If we are not to emulate righteousness, then what, pray tell, are we to emulate?

It is God’s character to vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked.  One has to wonder how it could be a sin to pray for God to act in accord with His character.

The critical question is, in what context does one pray these prayers?  The answer is largely in the prayers themselves.  A careful study of the imprecatory psalms gives a good sense of the circumstances in which, by biblical example, such prayers are appropriate.  Someone trying to kill you?  Okay.  Common thieves preying upon the innocent?  Sure.  The guy who cut you off in traffic just now?  Not so much.  Sorry.

****

Following Jesus is tricky business.  If somebody is walking around in a robe and sandals, and he says he’s folloiwng Jesus, well…  Jesus wore the clothing of his day.  A follower of Jesus today should wear the clothing of ours.

“So following Jesus means not wearing what Jesus wore?” robe-and-sandal guy will ask.
“Yes” we should say, without embarrassment.  “That’s exactly what it means.”

On the other hand, when Jesus verbally flays the sectarian hypocrites of His day in such colorful terms, He is applying the commands of Proverbs: answering fools according to their folly, lest they be wise in their own eyes.  We ought also to apply the commands of Proverbs, and we could do worse than to do it like Jesus did.

One could describe the ministry of the minor prophets in similar terms.  People wonder how one could justify postmodern life-as-performance-art from the Bible.  Hosea was doing it centuries before Christ — and making a very Solomonic point in so doing.

****

We are ambassadors of Christ to a watching world.  We dare not do any less than faithfully present Scripture.  We must speak about things as God speaks about them.

The alternative is to speak ‘kindly,’ where ‘kind’ is defined not by what God has said and done, but by our sentiment which we have assumed and pasted willy-nilly onto the Scriptures.  “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

****

Hope this helps.

His,
Tim


Altered States of Consciousness, Part 2: God Gave Ecstasy

15 February 2009

He did, you know.

The squinty-eyed fellow from the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry* isn’t having any of this.

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he says.  “When you’re in an ecstatic state, you can’t think clearly.  Your defenses are down, you can’t think rationally, and that leaves you open to whatever influences may wander by.  It’s dangerous.”

“How about mid-orgasm?”  I ask him.  “I’d have to say, I’m not at the height of my reasoning powers just then.  Does that make it dangerous, something I should avoid at all costs?”

He looks at me funny, his face reddening.  I think he’s embarrassed that I said the word “orgasm” out loud in the middle of a Christian conversation.

But think about it.

I mean, do we really think that God looks down at a husband and wife and says, “You know Gabriel, if I’d thought it out a little more carefully, I would have done it differently.  Who knew they’d have so much fun with the plumbing?  They’re getting so excited that they’re not thinking about doctrine at all.”

But no.  God knew what He was doing, and every gift of God is good:

Go, eat your bread with joy,
And drink your wine with a merry heart;
For God has already accepted your works.
Let your garments always be white,
And let your head lack no oil.

Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vaporous life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vapor; for that is your portion in life; and in the labor which you perform under the sun.

But it gets better.  Read the Song of Solomon.  Then read the Ecclesiastes quote above, again.  Then read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5:

Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man possess his own wife, and let each woman possess her own husband.  The husband must give his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

So taken in its proper biblical context, the command is for husband and wife to practice the Song of Solomon as often as at least one of them desires; in fact Paul specifically warns about the dangers of abstinence.

Now, Song of Solomon gives us a view of lovemaking as a mutually delightful feast for the senses.  And this necessarily involves a state of consciousness rather different from everyday waking awareness — that is to say, an altered state of consciousness.

Married people have no choice but to enter regularly into this altered state of consciousness.  It is a sin not to.

Hmmm.

It gets even better: God requires a husband to be drunk on his wife’s charms all the time.  (Here, not being a wife, I’m going to speak to husbands.  There’s an analogue for wives, but I’m not the person to discuss it.)

Solomon gives some very specific instructions to his sons on attitudes toward their wives:

Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts sate you at all times,
And always be drunk on her loving.

Yeah, I know, old King James says “satisfy” and “enraptured” instead of “sate” and “drunk” — I altered the translation for a reason.  The first word means to be drenched, satiated, well-drunk, with connotations of flooding or drunkenness, depending on the context.  The second word means to wander, stray, or weave about, and by metonymy, to be drunk.  Add it all up, and a husband is to be absolutely besotted with his wife, out of his head, all objectivity completely gone.  She is the only woman in the world.  He may know, intellectually, that there are other women in the world who are sexually attractive, but he can’t quite get over his wife enough to see any other woman that way.

You’ll note that the commands here are not of the grim, moralizing sort: “Young man, the woman you marry is going to get old, and she won’t be so attractive, and you’re going to want to stray, but don’t you dare.  Grit your teeth and bear it, and God will make it worth your while in heaven.”  That’s not at all what Solomon says.  Solomon says, “Son, your job is to be absolutely lost in your wife’s physical charms.”  At risk of belaboring the point, he is not just talking about her great personality.**  

It’s a truism in Christian circles that it’s not a sin to be tempted, but only to yield to it.  This is one case where that’s not really true.  A husband who is seriously tempted to stray (including mentally, in the way Jesus talks about) has already violated this command; if he’s thinking about some other woman’s body, he’s not sufficiently drunk on his wife.  By the same token, a Christian husband who thinks of himself as  “breast man” or a “thigh man” is a contradiction in terms; a Christian husband must be drunk on his wife’s breasts, not breasts generally.  The inner workings of this are another discussion; for now, suffice it to say that it’s a very enjoyable and God-honoring form of meditation.

And it is to be cultivated, not just some of the time, but constantly — note the word “always.”  This is not just when she’s present and in the midst of seducing him, but when he’s at work, when she’s eight months pregnant, when they’ve just had a fight — all the time.  Obviously, this is a profoundly altered state of consciousness.  In fact, the Bible even uses the language of drunkenness to describe it.  

This was just the really obvious example; there are other, similarly altered states we could discuss.  Proper exercise will induce euphoria, for example.  I’m not talking about doing something cruel to your body that kills brain cells and makes you see pretty colors.  I’m talking about inducing, and then pushing through, cardio-respiratory distress.  The result is neuro-immuno-endocrine adaptation; your whole internal physiology reorganizes to meet the increased demands of the exercise.  It’s a complete overhaul — neuromuscular coordination, lactic acid transport, oxygen uptake, the works — very, very healthy for you.  And oooooooooh my, does it feel gooooood.

Singing triumphant, God-glorifying psalms for a good stretch will induce a similar state of euphoria; physiologically, it has to do with the way singing regulates your breathing, and music enhances the effect upon your emotions.  Even an extended responsive reading, carried out vigorously in a group, can do it.  It’s not uncommon for a person in that state to be so overcome that he’s temporarily unable to speak or sing.

Now all these — sexual communion between husband and wife, proper exercise, psalm-singing, and public reading and recitation of Scripture — are things we must do, even if they do feel really good.  If it turned out that all of these things involved mild pain, say, like getting a papercut, then we would preach the joys of serving God in spite of how it may feel at the moment.  We’d quote Paul saying, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  And so on.  In short, we’d be all gung-ho about it.

Well, it turns out that these things are pleasurable instead of painful.  And something about that makes them hard to accept.  It’s hard to get a good self-righteous buzz going when you’re doing something fun.  It’s incredibly revealing — of uour character, of our view of God — that we have such trouble with pleasure.  

But we still need to just obey.  So may I suggest that at the very minimum, we should obey God in spite of how it might feel?  If it turns out that obeying God engenders a hit of endorphins, we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and trust Him to get us through it, in spite of the pleasure.  It’s a tough job, but Christian living can’t always be a bed of thorns.

Of course, we should go much further than that — we should thank God for His good gifts, and enjoy what He has given us, as we are commanded to do.

The squinty-eyed fellow thinks for a moment.  “But the Bible says that if we follow Christ, we’ll have tribulation.”

“So we will,” I tell him, “but does it ever say that it will be tribulation every moment?”

He is silent.  I continue: “Doesn’t it also say that God gives us all things richly to enjoy?  Doesn’t it also say, for example, that the heavens declare the glory of God?  Shouldn’t I enjoy the sunset?”

“Sure you should,” he says.  “But God’s doing that.  When you’re exercising so that you’ll get high, that seems a little different.  It sounds addictive.”

“‘Exercising to get high’ is not quite what I said, but maybe we can come back to that later.  Let’s talk about ‘addictive.’  What does that mean, exactly?” I ask.

“Well, you know,” he says.  “You do something, and you like it, so you get to doing it more, and you like it more, and pretty soon it’s all you can think about.”

“So your solution is to not do anything you like?”  I ask.  “Sounds a little drastic to me.”

“It works,” he says primly.  “I’m not addicted to anything, either.”

“That’s arguable,” I say.  “Paul has some pretty spiky comments about neglect of the body not having any spiritual benefit.  But let’s explore this addiction thing further, because I think you have a valid concern.  It is certainly possible to abuse the pleasures God gives.”

He nods.  “Exactly.”

“So let’s talk about alcohol,” I say.  “It seems like the ideal test case — it’s discussed quite a bit in the Bible, it can be physically addictive, and a person could avoid it altogether and live a perfectly healthy life, so it’s totally optional on that level.”

By this time, he’s a little suspicious.  “Okay…” he says doubtfully.

to be continued…

*See the disclaimer in Part 1.

**Real beauty begins internally, and the Bible has a lot to say about that.  It goes way beyond “having a great personality” — true beauty is both true beauty and true beauty; there is a physical outworking of the internal condition.  But here, Solomon is not talking about internal beauty, and in fact there are no exception clauses for internal ugliness.  He must still be absolutely besotted with her body, no matter what the state of her internal beauty.


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.


A Primer on Worship and Reformation

9 November 2008

If you’re one of those true believers that honestly thinks mainstream Evangelical worship is in the midst of a new rebirth of wonder, you’re going to spend the first chapter of A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan wondering what in the world is eating Doug Wilson.

Composed more as a corrective than an indictment, Primer assumes from the beginning that the reader has at least begun to suspect that North American Evangelical worship is largely hollow and bankrupt.  If you’re not there yet, the first chapters probably won’t convince you, but keep reading.  The latter chapters provide a basis for comparison, and against that vision, the status quo may never look the same again.

I’ve spent a couple of really delightful evenings with this book, so let me give you a more detailed picture of its contents.  As so many Canon offerings do, the book begins with a broadside. It doesn’t even wait until the first page of text.  By the time I’d read the table of contents, I had already caught the heady scent of sacred cow on the barbecue — the first chapter is titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Schlock.”

…modern evangelicals have a…deep and covetous hunger to be cool–and so we have bestselling authors, Grammy award winners, trademark lawyers, Designer Bibles with Study Notes for just about everybody, rock bands with guys filled with middle class white guy angst, earrings, and tattoos to match, rock bands with Christian women as sexy as it gets, for that special born-again T & A market niche, and onward into the fog.  The biblical name for all this is worldliness.  And to paraphrase the late P. T. Barnum, there is a sucker born again every minute. (p. 12)

All this is not just so much baptized misanthropy.  First of all, it’s true.  Second, worldliness is the correct label, and that’s an important point in itself.  Third, Wilson is headed somewhere even more central:

Now what does all this have to do with worship, or the reformation of worship?  All cultures have a cultus at the center.  The center of every culture is its worship.  There is no such thing as a religion-less culture, and the same is true of all sub-cultures. (p. 12)

Therefore, he says, the wreckage that is mainstream evangelical culture is the result of a decay in evangelical worship.  Wilson has written elsewhere that in order to engage in, let alone win, the culture wars, it will be necessary for Christians to have a culture.  Here, he takes it one step further: in order to have a reformation and renewal of Christian culture, we must first have a reformation of Christian worship.  Wilson further supports his contention with a historical review of how we got into the desperate straits in which we presently find ourselves, followed by a chapter devoted to defining and defending the stance he’s dubbed “high church Puritan.”  To my eye, these two chapters are largely summaries of ideas found in Reformed is not Enough, so if the ideas intrigue you, there’s more where it came from.

Where Primer really shines is in the chapters that follow.  Here, Wilson describes the reformation of worship that he advocates, and it’s nothing short of glorious.  He offers a brief chapter each on evangelism, liturgy, Scripture, the Lord’s Table, the Psalms, Feasting and the Sabbath, and rearing children as part of the church.  In each chapter, the pietism, revivalism and individualism of modern Western Christianity come in for a good whipping, and the unity of Christ’s body and the corporate nature of worship are the threads that hold these seemingly disparate subjects together.

I find myself agreeing that we should reject what Wilson is rejecting, but sometimes hesitant to accept what he offers in its place, although I would happily attend a church that worships in the way he describes.  Which is to say that in general, I believe he’s on the right track and making productive suggestions.  I’m not going to go through them all — for that, you can buy the book — but let’s consider a three sample points: evangelism, the Sabbath, and the Scriptures.

The chapter on evangelism offers an end to guilt-driven, weird evangelistic encounters where Christians with no talent for it trap a random stranger in the park and try to tell him about Jesus before his dog finishes peeing on the swingset and he walks away.   Wilson states that the Bible gives to the church the responsibility to preach Christ, and to individual believers it gives the responsibility to be ready to give an answer when asked (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Although we should reject the gawky and ham-handed approaches that Wilson is trying to avoid, a more nuanced handling of the Great Commission is called for here.  In it, Jesus commands His disciples to make disciples who will, in turn, obey all His commands including the Great Commission.  While the church is certainly to do this corporately, every individual has a part to play.  When confronted with a believer, the job is to stir him up to love and good deeds, so that he becomes a better disciple.  Likewise, when confronted with an unbeliever, sharing the gospel with him is required of us, in the best way we can.  There are no exception clauses for people who don’t have the gift of evangelism.  But it may be in a given instance that the best way we can share the gospel with an unbeliever is to simply do honest business with the guy.  The situation calls for a more realistic view of human interaction than what usually obtains in church seminars on evangelism.  Most people don’t go to the park to meet random strangers, and don’t care to be accosted by someone taking a survey on the ten commandments, or whatever the favored pick-up line might happen to be this week.  There are people who can get away with it anyway, and people who can’t.  The only way to find out which you are is to give it a shot.  But if you’re not one of these people, find a better way of sharing your faith, and don’t let someone guilt-trip you into bad stewardship of your time and energy.  If the whole body is not an eye, neither is it all a big mouth.

I would also take this a step further and say that a believer living the sort of life described in 1 Peter 3:8-17 is going to get asked why he lives that way — so if nobody’s asking, you’re doing it wrong.  I suspect, though, that such a person will also be oozing Jesus out every pore, and he’ll initiate telling people about Jesus in ways that turn out to be surprisingly appropriate, because that’s who he is.  But that’s the real thing of which the youth group trip to the park is a fun-house mirror’s demented reflection.  You just can’t fake it if you don’t yet have the character for it.

An astute reader will notice that although we may construct the case differently, for the most part Wilson and I arrive at the same practical result on the subject of evangelism.  I find myself in similar accord in a number of other places in the book.

I am not in accord, however, with the sabbatarian strain that runs through both “Covenant Renewal” and “Feasting and the Sabbath.” To separate the observance of one day (either the first or the seventh) as necessary obedience to the Fourth Commandment stands in blatant disregard of several direct statements in the New Testament, not least Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17.  Both passages clearly make mandatory observance of the Fourth Commandment a thing of the past.  To further buttress the position by appeal to the sabbath rest of Hebrews 4 (p. 36) misses a very large point in the immediate context.  Theologians have long argued about how to understand the sabbath rest denied the exodus generation (vv. 3, 5-6), and which yet remains for God’s people (v. 9).  Some — myself among them — argue that it’s millennial rest; others argue for some sort of spiritual succor here and now.  What is blindingly obvious, though, is that it cannot possibly be the weekly Sabbath observance, because the Exodus generation actually did that, even after God turned them away from the land (Numbers 15:32-36).

I am sure that Wilson has thought about these things, and I would like to know what he says about them.  I don’t know, because in Primer; Wilson more assumes his position than argues it.  He seems to be raising passages that he regards as persuasive, without taking the time and space to explain why they should be persuasive, or to anticipate and answer common objections.  But this is entirely fair; detailed defense for the position is clearly beyond the scope of this book.  Primer‘s purpose is to paint a picture of what Sabbath observance could look like, and it does this job very, very well.

The resulting portrait is undeniably attractive.  I love what Wilson has to say about feasting in general, and the concept of resting one day in seven is both wise and completely in accord with the way God designed the world — and man — to work.  I observe a day of rest myself (on Saturday — pastors work on Sundays), and he paints a wonderful picture of a day brimming with both rest (Feasting and the Sabbath) and worship (Covenant Renewal).  It’s glorious, and I have no doubt that a Sabbath spent at Chateau Wilson is a day well spent indeed.

With regard to the worship service itself, “Covenant Renewal” offers a badly needed prescription for coherent worship.  Wilson advocates a pattern that, to my eye, has been observed more often than not in the historical Christian church, although I’m not sure it has been so clearly articulated as it is here (for further details, see The Lord’s Service by Jeffrey J. Myers).  The modern church desperately needs to return to its roots in this area, and the practical, pastoral aspects of making the change would be worth a book-length treatment (hint, hint).  In the meantime, Primer offers any reader a glimpse of what it could be like.

“Thundering the Word” addresses the preaching and interpretation of Scripture, and it’s a treat.  The precision-worshiping hermeneutical “science” of the Enlightenment church comes in for a bad beating as Wilson champions the so-old-it’s-new idea that the Scriptures themselves teach us how to interpret the Scriptures. Having recently taught a ten-week course designed around that insight myself, I obviously don’t disagree.  Some of the places Wilson goes with that insight, however, make me nervous.

When I first read his exposition of the Church as the last Eve (pp. 48-53), I wasn’t ready to agree, even if the Bible does say that Christ is the last Adam, and that He’s a bridegroom, and that the Church is His bride.  Having considered it for a while, though, I find the evidence undeniable, and the pastoral applications quite edifying.  I would now put down my initial reluctance to a lack of time in grade: I only made the switch to biblical hermeneutics a few years ago.

Other places I still don’t see a good reason to go.  Wilson invokes Luke 24:25-27 in support of christological/typological interpretation.  While there’s a sane way to do that, both the passage and the overall principle have been mightily abused.  At the level of generality in Primer, it’s difficult to tell whether Wilson is advocating sanity or not.  I am also reluctant to agree that “the New Testament set[s] the meaning of every Old Testament passage it addresses.”  I’d prefer to say that the Old Testament is the foundation of the New, and therefore it limits what the New Testament can mean (Romans 1:16-17//Habbakuk 2:4), and the New Testament offers a variety of uses of the Old Testament: enlightening commentary on what the Old Testament does mean (Matthew 5-7), allusive analogies and parallels (1 Corinthians 10), additional insight not available from the Old Testament account (Hebrews 11:10), and brilliant narratival syntheses exposing themes and messages only latent in the Old Testament text (Romans 4).  Here again, I suspect that we agree more than not, but at times it’s difficult to tell in a work of this length.

These three general areas by no means exhaust what I want to say about this book.  It’s that kind of book: a discussion-starter, the sort of book that fits in your pocket, but keeps you in good conversation with like-minded believers for months.  So buy it, and let’s talk.


Liturgy, Part 2: Unity and Music

21 September 2008

The second in a series of papers on liturgical matters, Unity and Music: Five Hills to Die On addresses five specific areas of concern as our church tries to find its way, musically speaking. It starts out like this…

One of the worst things about Christians is our tendency to feel that because everything is a matter of principle, everything is equally important. Consequently, we often waste time and resources fighting over trivial things when there are really serious issues in play. Nowhere is this more true than in church music. I have, to my considerable shame, been a combatant in some really stupid arguments over Read the rest of this entry »


Cantus Christi: Psalm-Singing for the Masses

27 July 2008

For my birthday, my darling wife bought me three presents: Cantus Christi, the accompanying CD set, and a 4-sermon series titled The Worship of the Saints. I’m going to review the first two here. The sermon series is definitely worth reviewing, but I’m still recovering from my shock. I’ll have to get to it later.

Cantus is a serious effort to recover psalm-singing in the church, as the proportion of the book devoted to the psalms demonstrates (196 out of 440 pages).

The single biggest challenge in psalm-singing is that while God gives us the words, He has not been pleased to preserve the original music. A saint who would sing psalms — as we are all commanded to do (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam.5:13) — must somehow come up with the music by which to sing them. Happily, this does not mean we have to write all the music ourselves.

Over the centuries, many saints have encountered this same challenge, and have written or adapted music for the psalms. Accordingly, Cantus is also a serious attempt to mine the wealth of the Western Church’s musical tradition. The music for the psalms relies heavily on the Genevan Psalter and other early Reformation musical sources, and the hymn tunes go back as far as A.D. 800. Psalm tunes include metrical songs (hymns that ordinary folks can sing without Read the rest of this entry »