Archive for July, 2009

The Fear of God

July 31, 2009

The Fear of God – Frederick Faber (1814-1863)

My fear of Thee, O Lord, exults
Like life within my veins,
A fear which rightly claims to be
One of love’s sacred pains.

Thy goodness to Thy saints of old
An awful thing appeared;
For were Thy majesty less good
Much less would it be feared.

There is no joy the soul can meet
Upon life’s various road
Like the sweet fear that sits and shrinks
Under the eye of God.

A special joy is in all love
For objects we revere;
Thus joy in God will always be
Proportioned to our fear.

Oh Thou art greatly to be feared,
Thou art so prompt to bless!
The dread to miss such love as Thine
Makes fear but love’s excess.

The fulness of Thy mercy seems
To fill both land and sea;
If we can break through bounds so vast,
How exiled shall we be!

For grace is fearful, which each hour
Our path in life has crossed;
If it were rarer, it might be
Less easy to be lost.

But fear is love, and love is fear,
And in and out they move;
But fear is an intenser joy
Than mere unfrightened love.

When most I fear Thee, Lord! then most
Familiar I appear;
And I am in my soul most free,
When I am most in fear.

I should not love Thee as I do:
If love might make more free;
Its very sweetness would be lost
In greater liberty.

I feel Thee most a father, when
I fancy Thee most near:
And Thou comest not so nigh in love
As Thou comest, Lord! in fear.

They love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is Thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is Thy very touch.

Love could not love Thee half so much
If it found Thee not so near;
It is thy nearness, which makes love
The perfectness of fear.

We fear because Thou art so good,
And because we can sin;
And when we make most show of love,
We are trembling most within.

And Father! when to us in heaven
Thou shalt Thy Face unveil,
Then more than ever will our souls
Before Thy goodness quail.

Our blessedness will be to bear
The sight of Thee so near,
And thus eternal love will be
But the ecstasy of fear.

Apples and Oranges – 2

July 24, 2009

I have argued that if the similarities between historical worship wars can be shown to be greater than the differences, we must concede the point to advocates of Contemporary Christian Music that our problem is merely one of slow adaptation, fear of the unknown and traditionalism. On the other hand, if the differences are far greater than the similarities, then while those similarities might be instructive, we must deal with the fact that we have an altogether different battle on our hands, requiring something more than the sentiment of “Just adapt or die!”

Let me begin by noting the similarities.

Certainly, we still have hard-bitten traditionalists, who take refuge in the tried and tested. This is not always a bad thing, either. However, there are still some who defend ‘the old hymns’ even if those old hymns are impenetrable or even inferior in quality. Theirs is not a defence of piety, but a defence of a methodology they are comfortable with.

We also still have those calling for music and the lyrics to be accessible and plain to the common man, some moderate, and some radical. In moderation,  this is not a bad thing, either. However, the radicals want to replace tradition with contemporaneity as if older hymns are like worn furniture, an embarrassment for a generation high on novelty. There are also some who, like the unthinking traditionalists, defend ‘the new songs’ even if those new songs are trivial, unhelpful to piety, and inferior in quality. Once again, theirs is not a defence of piety, but a defence of a methodology they are comfortable with.

In fact, both groups should begin to focus attention on the matter of piety: what is appropriate to say or sing to God? Who, in fact, is God? How did the Christian church for two thousand years express their devotion to Him? What affections are appropriate? How do we express those affections artistically? Once we are approaching some kind of agreement on the nature of our God and meaning of poetical or musical idioms, we can examine songs, new and old, and see if they reach the minimum standard.

These similarities exist, and perhaps always will.

However, my contention is that the differences between our worship wars and the previous ones are far greater than the similarities, making the situation not parallel, as Miller insists. If the situation is not parallel, then the force of his argument ceases.

 First, what is being borrowed is a very different animal. To point out that Christians were borrowing from ‘secular sources’ attempts to say too much. It attempts to say that the act of borrowing music from non-church sources is essentially the same act, whenever it is performed. But that is like saying that borrowing a neighbour’s lawnmower and borrowing his wife are both essentially the morally neutral act of borrowing. Here the emphasis is on the act of borrowing, and the source of the lending: the neighbour. This is precisely wrong. What matters always is what is being borrowed. Borrowing a man’s lawnmower can be acceptable; borrowing a man’s wife is always immoral. It is inconclusive to say that Christians have always borrowed from secular sources. The important question is: what kind of music were they borrowing when they did so?

Well, consider Luther. Of his many hymns and other compositions, Luther used one secular tune for a Christmas hymn, which he later replaced, embarrassed over its associations. Indeed, Luther himself said that he wanted to write music that would attract young people “away from love songs and carnal pieces and [would] give them something wholesome to learn instead…” (Paul Jones, Singing and Making Music, p172). Luther did borrow from folk tunes and Gregorian chant, a common practice, even in the Baroque era.

This leads us to a second, and perhaps even more significant difference. To have borrowed from a ‘secular’ culture during the Patristic era, the medieval era, or even the early Enlightenment era was a very different thing from borrowing from the secular culture of our era. This is the major flaw in Miller’s argument. He does not define ‘secular’. It seems to be a vague category of ‘whatever is outside the church’. In fact, secularism as a true system of thought and belief is a product of the Enlightenment, so it isn’t entirely accurate to speak of Luther or Bunyan borrowing from ‘secular sources’. Secularism as we know it didn’t exist then.

Prior to the Enlightenment, high culture was effectively controlled by the Roman Church. This did not make it all perfect, but it did make it at least theistic. Music, art, philosophy, poetry, literature was created, sanctioned and controlled in this kind of environment. Folk culture was the culture that grew up amongst various languages, regions and localities and reflected a trickle-down from high culture. The music, poetry and traditions of villages and towns was simpler and more accessible than high culture, but it was largely influenced by its categories. That did not mean it did not contain anything objectionable. The point is, when Luther, Calvin, Wesley or Watts borrowed from non-church sources, they were borrowing from a folk culture still largely riding the wave of 1000 years of Christian expression.

On the other hand, the Enlightenment was a conscious jettisoning of Christianity, beginning in philosophy and extending to music, poetry, literature and the plastic arts. With the development of mass media, folk culture began to evaporate. The culture spread through the mass media is true secularism: a worldview where God does not matter. Furthermore, it is an unprincipled secularism: a secularism that lives on mass appeal, fuelled by advertisement revenue, leading to a cycle of debasement to reach the appetites of consumers.

This is a very different culture from the Christianised culture of Luther, Wesley or Watts. To say that borrowing from the folk culture of Medieval, Renaissance or early Enlightenment Europe is the same thing as borrowing from 21st century pop culture is comparing apples with oranges.

Culture has changed. It has not merely changed its ‘style’. It has changed its view of reality. We live in a post-Christian era. I might borrow a cup of milk from my unbelieving neighbour. But should I borrow his DVD collection for my personal devotions?

Few informed Christians would contend that Western culture has not declined in Christian sensibility since the Enlightenment. However, we are far more apathetic than any generation prior to ours. Ancient Christians were willing to vigorously contend for what they thought was sacrilege; we’re content to hold two services.

Apples and Oranges – Part 1

July 18, 2009

Church music has always been controversial.
Church music is still controversial.
It’s just more of the same. Right?

Well, maybe. And maybe not. There is no doubt that church music has been controversial throughout the ages. Looking back, many of the conflicts now seem trivial or even silly to us. We tend to assume such conflicts seem ridiculous to us because we are more advanced in our thinking about music. We seldom assume it is because previous ages of the church were more serious about worship than we are.

Steve Miller, in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, makes the case that we are slow to learn from church history, and do not realise that our ‘worship wars’ are just the next phase of the church reacting against novelty, being slow to accommodate itself to popular musical idioms, and treasuring tradition as an end in itself.

 On the surface, the argument seems compelling. Consider some of the previous conflicts:

*The early church wrestled with the problem of using musical instruments in church. Many felt they had no place. The Council of Laodicea outlawed them in A.D. 367.
*The Moravians, as dissenters, published their own hymnbook in 1504, drawing great condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church.
*Martin Luther set about writing songs and hymns in the simple and common language of the people. Luther drew on popular folk tunes and ballads, and set sacred words to them. His hymns were seen as a sacrilege as great as his German translation of the Bible. The Bohemian Brethren also used ‘secular’ (as Miller uses the term) tunes.
*Bach’s use of the organ, as well as his use of counterpoint was considered by many to be worldly and irreverent.
*John Calvin opposed anything reminiscent of the Roman Church, so he outlawed all non-Scriptural songs, and taught that musical instruments were for the immature Old Testament believers. Calvin’s churches sang only the psalms, set to metrical tunes, and did so without instruments. To this day, many Reformed churches practise exclusive psalmody.
*Isaac Watts fought against the Anglican use of exclusive psalmody, and insisted that hymns should be written in the modern language of contemporary Christians. When he eventually published his first book of hymns, he was vilified as profane, and even arrogant, thinking himself ‘a new King David’. The pressure nearly destroyed him.
*John Bunyan’s attempt to introduce hymns into his church nearly split it.
*Charles Wesley followed Watts, to the same reaction. He used popular English folk tunes, borrowed from Handel, and filled his lyrics with the warmth of Christian experience. Wesley’s hymns were likewise attacked and hated.
*Horatius Bonar’s hymns were banned by the elders of his own parish.

From all this evidence, it seems as simple as connecting the dots to see the parallel with our era. All the same characters, circumstances and plot twists seem to be in place: traditionalists bent on preserving older forms, innovators insisting upon contemporary music or lyrics, one side arguing for reverence and elevation, the other side arguing for accessibility and comprehension, either side calling the other side names. So, it is fairly easy to smile a smug smile, and say, “We just never learn, do we? It’s just more of the same!”

But is it?

Let me suggest that there are undeniable similarities  between previous worship wars and our own, but there are also considerable differences. The real question is whether or not the similarities are greater than the differences. For if the differences are greater than the similarities, then Miller’s argument falls down. Those who want to dismiss the whole argument as simply a rehashing of an old war must demonstrate that there are no significant differences between previous worship wars and the present one. Conservatives, on the other hand, must demonstrate that this is not merely a variation on the same old battle, but a far more serious battle than ever before, indeed, a different kind of battle altogether.

In the next article, I’d like to explain why I think Miller is wrong, and why the situation is an altogether different kind of conflict than the ones fought previously.

Lord Smiley-Face

July 10, 2009

Once there was a man who lived as a worshipper of Lord Smiley-Face. He grew up singing the smiley songs to Lord Smiley-Face, and faithfully attended his weekly worship services. Lord Smiley-Face was, as you might imagine, a grinning deity, who was most pleased if during worship, his followers grinned, giggled and displayed cheerful, chipper attitudes. In fact, if his followers were upbeat, positive and humourous more often than not, they were regarded as holy.

As the man lived in the world, he began to notice that the worship Lord Smiley-Face required did not seem to match the pain and difficulty of life. He wondered within if Lord Smiley-Face had any place for sorrow, distress, confusion, longing, or even hatred. Lord Smiley-Face’s simple yellow countenance seemed so inadequate to match the darkly-textured contours of life.

In desperation, he picked up the Word of Smiley-Face, and purposed to read it sincerely and wholeheartedly. What he found therein shocked him. He found that the deity spoken of within the Word of Smiley-Face was nothing like the pictures, songs and sermons he had heard. In fact, the deity of the Word was not Lord Smiley-Face at all, even though Lord Smiley’s face was on the cover. This deity was large-hearted and compassionate. He was mysterious and hard to understand, and yet willing to be known. He was immensely powerful, and not to be trifled with. He was fully acquainted with human pain, and had even shared in it Himself.

The man read of this deity with trembling. As he read further, his fear turned into a deep desire, and his desire into glad trust. He found himself bowing and kneeling before One whom He now loved like a Father, and bowed before as a Sovereign.

His new experience unnerved him, and he wondered if he hadn’t become deluded. How could all those weekly worshippers of the Big Yellow Face be wrong? He decided to read the songs, prayers and messages of long-dead believers in Lord Smiley-Face, to see if their experience was similar to his. To his delight and amazement, he found that they too had known that the deity of the Word was the Consuming Fire, and not the Big Yellow Face. He was amazed that people were using the same words to talk about different objects of worship

As he studied, he grew in desire for the worship of the True Deity, and in compassion for his fellow humans. He felt grieved that the name of the True Deity was being confused by the grinning worship of Lord Smiley-Face. He found it harder and harder to enjoy the gleeful superficialities, the cheeriness and the happy-talk of the grin-and-care meetings.

He began to voice his views and speak to others about their songs, prayers, and messages. He found that their pasted grins remained fixed in place. They thanked him for his views and assured him that they stood in a good tradition of Smiley-Face believers, and all those people could not have been wrong. They pointed out that they were amongst the most biblical of Smilers. They pointed to all the good being done in the name of Lord Smiley-Face, and to all the formerly sad people who had joined their ranks and had become cheerful.

The man persisted in pointing out the differences between the True Deity and Lord Smiley-Face. Few understood him. They were quite happy with life under Lord Smiley-Face. When the Smilers were not amused by his questions and comments, they became confused, and even irritated.

“Do you hate us?”, asked an older man, his grin taking strain at its edges.

“No, I don’t. If I hated you, I would be indifferent to your condition, and I’d say nothing at all.”

“But you’re being critical,” he said, as if he had not heard him at all.

“Sometimes we must be critical of things that shouldn’t be.”

“What about the simplicity of just smiling at happy things?”, the older man asked.

“It exactly because I want the deepest kinds of joys for you that I point out what is a poor substitute for joy.”

“But just look at you. You’re not smiling. I am. How can you be right about these things if you aren’t smiling?”

“Perhaps a permanent smile is not the sign of true worship,”  he said quietly.

“I think you’re becoming so critical that you’re losing the joy of Lord Smiley-Face.”

The man chose to hold his tongue and withdraw. As he walked away, he wondered what it would take for people to break free of the grip of worshipping their own happiness.

A Matter of Personal Taste

July 4, 2009

When we discuss matters of meaning or value, particularly in matters of art, the almost inevitable comment thrown in will be something along the lines of, “Well, that is a matter of personal taste”, or “That’s my personal preference”, or “I happen to like it”. This seemingly humble admission is often meant to say something else, namely that the thing under question should not be judged for its value. In those cases, what the commenter has done, in an almost knee-jerk fashion, is to reveal how post-modern his or her thinking is. Post-moderns believe that absolute truth does not exist in any real form except in the subjective, personal sense. As Christians, we have all heard post-modern unbelievers tell us that religion is fine if it works for you, or that all religions are personalised ‘styles’ of life, or that no one is authorised to say someone else’s faith is incorrect.

However, we do not escape this post-modernistic way of thinking in a day. We bring it with us into Christianity, and only the renewing of the mind with truth can rid us of it. Nowhere is this clearer than when a Christian says of things that can be ascribed a certain value, “that’s just a matter of personal taste”.

Now the problem with these kinds of statements is that they say something true while at the same time saying something untrue. The almost intuitively true statement about humans having different tastes and preferences seems so self-evident that it blinds us to its unstated post-modernistic conclusion, which is this: “…therefore, no judgement can be passed on the value of what I love.” Do you see the sleight of hand here? First, we have been drawn in to assent to something no one denies: human beings like different things. While staring at the fact of human idiosyncrasy, we have not noticed it has been swapped in for another idea: that no intrinsic meaning or value can be assigned to objects external to humans. If differences of personal preference exist, then no distinctions in objective value exist. This is pure post-modernism. “If I like it, it is true for me. If you don’t, then it is not true for you. The thing itself is neither true nor false.”

There is no question that judgement of the meaning and value of art is a matter of opinion, or a matter of personal taste. The point many fail to grasp is that such opinion can be right or wrong, and such tastes can be good or bad. The fact that one man has a taste for nail polish does not change its nature as a poor beverage. The fact that one man loves and enjoys rubbish dumps does not change the ugliness of the rubbish dump. In other words, Christians who believe in absolute truth must make a clear distinction between what is objectively true, lovely, beautiful or helpful in the universe outside ourselves, and our subjective taste for those things. God has created a universe which contains things that are objectively true, good and beautiful. He says so (Phil 1:9-11, 4:8). Whether or not I come to love what is lovely will not change the fact that such things exist. If I love what is ugly, it will not change the fact that they are ugly in God’s sight. Objective beauty exists, whether or not there were any observers around to perceive it.

And here is where we return to the truth of the statement, “It is a matter of taste.” It is a matter of taste. The question is, do I have a taste for what I ought to have a taste for? It may be that my tastes have been adjusted and shaped to love what is trivial, juvenile, clichéd and altogether unsuitable for spiritual and intellectual adulthood. In that case, to say “It is a matter of personal taste” is not only to state the obvious, but to act as if I am in denial of such things as objective goodness, truth and beauty. Christians ought to recoil when adulterous or immoral people defend their actions with the words, “It’s a personal choice.” Yes, but those personal choices are wrong choices. Likewise, we should not accept the same attitude in our own circles when objectively bad, ugly and false things are defended with the words “It’s just a style; it’s not about truth.”

Now two things need to be said further.

First, our tastes are malleable things. They are always in the process of changing, depending on what we expose them to. I have a taste for certain things that I had no interest in five years ago, and the opposite is true as well. We cannot change our tastes in a day. We cannot simply switch off what we like, and gain a love for what we don’t by an act of the will. However, we can begin to discourage exposure to that which we know is unhelpful to Christian thought and piety, be it immoral, trivial, banal, sentimental, brutal or clichéd. We can begin to expose ourselves to what we sense (or hear from our betters) is helpful to Christian thought and piety, be it beautiful, orderly, true, serious, ordinate, or refreshing. As we’ve said before, we must push out from where we are, not too far to where the things become foreign, impenetrable and uncomfortable,  for that will no doubt have a backlash effect. Yet we must push out far enough to grow, so that our tastes do not merely remain where they are.

Let me also add, that within the bounds of what is true, good and beautiful, there is room for varying preferences. Amongst good hymns each of us will have different favourites. Amongst beautiful music we will have our idiosyncratic delights. This is quite acceptable. Let no one claim that our argument leads to saying that we should all love precisely the same things in the same way, like automatons.

Moreover, to say that Christians might have differing preferences amongst the true, the good and the beautiful is not the same thing as saying that personal preferences make all value distinctions obsolete. To say that Christians might prefer one type of music over another amongst good music, does not mean that bad music does not exist.

Second, no one can give you an appreciation for what is beautiful or lovely by explaining it in a clinical, discursive or propositional fashion. Beauty is not formulaic (although it is orderly). If you want these things given like equations, you’re barking up the wrong tree.  Beauty is pointed to, and through continual exposure, recognised. It is part of your spiritual growth. Sadly, the impatient will not stand for this very process of the sanctification of their tastes. They decide that if no chapter and verse forbids their current loves, then only Pharisees will forbid them, and so they continue to love at the juvenile level.

Tastes must be grown. The same care and time we give to growing in objective truth, must be given to growing in affective truth, the understanding of what is true, good and beautiful. If God has made things objectively true, good and beautiful, it is the obligation of the believer to find out what truth, goodness and beauty are, so that he or she can recognise such things when seen or heard, and give glory to God.

Yes, much is a matter of personal taste and approval. The call of spiritual growth is to approve the things that are excellent.