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grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them.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grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers.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.

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Liturgical Theology

22 March 2009

Liturgy is one of those unavoidable issues.  If you gather in church, you’re going to do something.  The word for that something is liturgy.

To my considerable detriment, and the great shame of my tradition, I managed to get through 4 years of Bible college and 4 more years of seminary, graduate from both, and be ordained as a minister of the gospel, all without receiving any training in liturgical theology.  Not one course; not one recommended book; not so much as a casual conversation over coffee.

If you paid close attention to my first paragraph, you’re probably wondering, “What? First you say it’s unavoidable to have liturgy, and then you say you got no training in liturgy?  How’s that possible?”

It’s not.  Everyone gets training in liturgy every time they go to church.  I was no exception.  I even got a little formal training in liturgy.  Not much, but enough to get me through my first church service, first communion service, first wedding, etc., without disaster.  What I didn’t get was training in liturgical theology — being conscious of what the liturgy communicates, understanding the underlying theology of it.  I had lots of training in the theology of what I say in church, but none at all in the theology of what we do in church.

God be praised, He maneuvered me into a pastoral situation where a couple of very divergent liturgical traditions were coming together, and this forced me to confront these issues.  If I’d taken a pastorate in a normal church in my tradition, I could have gone to my grave having never thought these things through.

But it was not to be.  The only way we could have church at all without fighting about what to do was to agree that nobody, including the pastor, was allowed to import traditions into our church without a discussion of the issues and a biblical grounding in why we were doing that particular thing.  The resulting ground-up examination of every last facet of the service has been excruciating for me, very slow going for everyone, and generally a difficult process, but very, very rewarding.

Why excruciating?  Not through any fault of my congregation, I can assure you.  They’ve been unfailingly loving, patient, and helpful throughout the process.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellow believers to hash through these things with, and I couldn’t possibly have gotten where I am without them.  I thank God for them constantly.  In spite of that, this process has been very painful for me because I had thought of myself as pretty well prepared for the ministry.  Oh, I knew I had a lot of experiential learning to do, just like every young pastorling does, but I though I was pretty solid in terms of what I knew.  Liturgical reform forced me to confront my abysmal ignorance in a very basic area of church practice.  Worse yet, about half of the little I thought I knew has turned out to be, not just wrong, but utterly indefensible.  So far.  I’m not making any bets about the reliability of the rest of my tiny fund of knowledge, either.

Unfortunately, I am far from alone in my benighted ignorance.  I recently heard a former Presbyterian minister bewailing the fact that there’s not a Reformed seminary on this continent where a student can get a course in liturgical theology.

Why is that?

I suspect because it would force us to confront areas of weakness and sin that make us very, very uncomfortable.  The implicit theology of a church service from my tradition is heartily gnostic.  The focus of the service is on delivery of information from pastor to people.  The hymns are screened for doctrinal content (and little else), the Lord’s Table is an occasion for a sermonette on the cross and resurrection, and the baptismal services are used as occasions to preach the gospel to unsaved loved ones who are invited to the service.  Everything is a sermon — spoken, set to music, or presented as an object lesson.  In some subsets of my tradition, even the word “service” has been replaced with the term “Bible class” — because that’s all it is.

It’s all about the ideas, disconnected from historical, experiential reality.

Now someone will justly complain that of course, the preaching — musical, spoken, and object lessons — hammers unceasingly on the need for the ideas to be applied into daily life.  Sad to say, there are occasional exceptions to this, but for the most part, this is true.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  While what we say certainly passes all the tests of orthodoxy, what we do in the church service pictures a different theology entirely.  The entire service is delivery of intellectual content from pastor (or choir) to people.  It pictures a theology in which pleasing God is all about knowing things, and the more content you know, the more pleased God will be with you.

That’s gnosticism.

And it leads to believers who have heavy notebooks bursting with information, and unholy lives empty of meaning.  And as much as we might decry the results from the pulpit in the next week’s ‘Bible class’, those very problems we so despise are results of our bankrupt worship.

As opposed to what?

Thought you’d never ask.

As opposed to the Church gathering consciously as the Cabinet of the New Jerusalem (temporarily in exile), in order that we, as royal priests ordained through baptism into Christ’s one body, might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to confess our sins, receive grace to help us in need, offer up the new covenant sacrifices of praise, hear His Word to us, and be fed by Him at His Table.  Gathering as royal priests to bring the world before God in prayer, that God will bring HImself to the world through us, and gathering as royal priests that we might wage war in the heavenly places against the ruling powers of that same world, secure in the knowledge that its many kingdoms will become the single Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

In other words, an actual, Christian worship service,  a time in which we serve God through worship rather than just downloading some content from the pastor’s head.

Now what does the liturgy look like when that is the implicit theology behind it?

I don’t know.  (I have no training in this, remember?)

But by God’s providence, through study and prayer and lots of trial and error, we’re going to find out together.


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


Sons of Korah

22 February 2009

Friday night some friends and I went to see the Sons of Korah in concert at Calvary Chapel of Montebello.

I’ve been hooked on Sons of Korah since my first visit to Australia in 2001, but I’ve never had the chance to see them live.  They’re an Australian group based in Melbourne, which rather seriously impaired my chances in any case, and when they did make it to the US, their tours were largely confined to the Midwest.

Not anymore.  This time they’re playing a number of Calvary Chapel churches and some other venues in California, and best of all, a pastors’ conference in San Diego.

It was incredible.

It’s a little difficult to explain the experience.  We hear the word ‘concert’ and instantly categorize the affair: guys up front playing instruments and singing, yeehaw.  It’s another Christian rock band.

But no.

First of all, these guys sing psalms.  Not, please notice, soulful ballads based on the psalms, nor peppy choruses made up of two lines from a psalm.  They sing whole psalms, beginning to end, set to music that will adorn the words and suit the themes of the inspired text.

That ‘beginning to end’ part is important.  I’m a big fan of metrical psalms, but there’s a serious problem: when you turn a psalm into a hymn, you’re going to sing the first verse and the last verse to the same tune. This is a problem because there are an awful lot of psalms that have multiple moods.  The psalm may start out grabbing God by the lapels and demanding “Where are You??  Why aren’t you doing anything about this??”  It may go on to rehearse the evil deeds of the psalmist’s oppressors, and then rehearse the many times that God has delivered His people in the past, and close with a vow to praise God in His sanctuary when He delivers from the present trial.  That’s at least two movements, musically, and it would be better with four.  One tune, repeated four times hymn-style, can’t possibly cover the emotional range of such a psalm.  So to really hear the psalm the way it’s meant to be heard, you need to hear it through-composed with an arrangement custom-built for it.

That’s what Sons of Korah do.  And they are gooood at it (click the album art in this post for some samples.)

And they do it for free.

You read that right.  They make some money on CD sales, but they charge nothing to come and do a concert.

Why would they do that?  Because it’s their ministry.  All they need is enough invitations in one tour-able area to cost-justify the trip, and they’re willing to come.  Their goal is to get the word out.  As Sons of Korah founder and front man Matt Jacoby put it last night, the goal is “to wake people up to the psalms.”  Concert performance allows the widest possible range of musical expression, so that’s what they focus on.  Future projects may include teaching tools and arrangements for congregational singing, but for now, performance is the tool that brings the most people into meaningful contact with the psalms quickly.

These guys ought to be in much greater demand than they are.  They should be buried under years’ worth of invitations.  A cynical man might take the fact that they are not as an indication that the church has simply lost its taste for God’s songs, that the church would prefer not to know how to handle its worship, its prayers, and its emotions in a way that requires faith.  All of that is certainly true in some measure.  But I prefer to think that most believers just don’t know the Sons of Korah exist.

Now you do.


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.


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?