Archive for October, 2009

Tozer on Hymnody

October 21, 2009

Compare the Christian reading matter [with previous Christian centuries]and you’ll know that we’re in pretty much the same situation. The Germans, the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the English, the Americans and the Canadians all have a common Protestant heritage. And what did they read, these Protestant forebears of yours and mine? Well, they read Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. They read Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying. They read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War. They read Milton’s Paradise Lost. They read the sermons of John Flavel.

And I blush today to think about the religious fodder that is now being handed out to children. There was a day when they sat around as the fire crackled in the hearth and listened to a serious but kindly old grandfather read Pilgrim’s Progress, and the young Canadian and the young American grew up knowing all about Mr. Facing-Both-Ways and all the rest of that gang. And now we read cheap junk that ought to be shoveled out and gotten rid of.

Then I think about the songs that are sung now in so many places. Ah, the roster of the sweet singers! There’s Watts, who wrote “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Zinzendorf, who wrote so many great hymns. And then there was Wesley, who’s written so many. There was Newton and there was Cooper, who wrote “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and Montgomery and the two Bernards—Bernard of Cluny and Bernard of Clairvaux. There was Paul Gerhardt and Tersteegen, there was Luther and Kelly, Addison and Toplady, Senic and Doddridge, Tate and Brady and the Scottish Psalter. And there was a company of others that weren’t as big as these great stars, but taken together they made a Milky Way that circled the Protestant sky.

I have an old Methodist hymnal that rolled off the press 111 years ago and I found forty-nine hymns on the attributes of God in it. I have heard it said that we shouldn’t sing hymns with so much theology because peoples minds are different now. We think differently now. Did you know that those Methodist hymns were sung mostly by uneducated people? They were farmers and sheep herders and cattle ranchers, coal miners and blacksmiths, carpenters and cotton pickers—plain people all over this continent. They sang those songs. There are over 1,100 hymns in that hymnbook of mine and there isn’t a cheap one in the whole bunch.

And nowadays, I won’t even talk about some of the terrible junk that we sing. They have a little one that is sung to the tune of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” which goes like this:

One, two, three, the devil’s after me,

Four, five, six, he’s always throwing bricks,

Seven, eight, nine, he misses me every time,

Hallelujah, Amen.

And the dear saints of God sing that now! Our fathers sang “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and we sing junk.

This tragic and frightening decline in the spiritual state of the churches has come about as a result of our forgetting what kind of God God is.

– A.W. Tozer, The Attributes of God, Vol. 2


The Beautiful

October 8, 2009


On one particular evening, the man invited some of his friends, who were still worshippers of Lord Smiley-Face, to hear an orchestra. His friends chatted happily before the performance began, and it seemed as if their accents had been affected by something, for they suddenly sounded slightly polished and nasal. Thankfully, they returned to normal after the concert.

The concert was masterfully executed by the musicians. The piece of music told its story, weaving through twists and turns, adding variation upon variation on the central theme. The composer never surrendered to the desire to create effects for their own sake, nor to be bombastic, obnoxious or sentimental. He did not tickle those who wanted their emotions tugged, nor did he reward lazy ears. He did not manipulate the hearer, but artfully drew him into the story, unfolding it layer by layer, building it layer by layer.

When it was over, the man invited his friends over to his home. He was desirous to hear their impressions.

They were smiling, as holy worshippers of Smiley-Face did.

“It was very impressive,” said one, sipping his coffee.

“I especially loved the part when the trumpets went pum-pa-pum-pum-pum,” said another, poorly mimicking the part in question.

“There really is depth to this music,” said a third, looking self-consciously serious, munching on a ginger cookie.

The others nodded, with solemn hums.

The man masked his disappointment with these responses and ventured what was on his heart.

Did you think it was beautiful?”

Of course, beautiful, beautiful,” they clucked, as if they had been asked if the sky were up or if the earth were round.

The man swallowed, and pushed on, half-sensing that the pleasantries of the evening were about to end.

“What do you mean when you say it was beautiful?”

They looked genuinely startled by the question, and shuffled uncomfortably. They glanced at each other. One let out a nervous laugh. “Well…what does anyone mean by that, eh? I mean, the eye of the beholder, and all that sort of thing, right?”

“Do you simply mean that the music was enjoyable to you?”

“Yes, exactly – enjoyable!” said one of the friends, his face displaying visible relief.

The man paused.

“Do you think some people would not enjoy it?”

“Well… sure.” They began to look suspiciously at the man, wondering where this was going. “This kind of music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, you know!” said the loudest one of the group.

The man waited a moment and pressed on.

“If some did not enjoy it, and you say that enjoyment is the essence of beauty, then perhaps the performance was not beautiful.”

Not beautiful for them, you mean,” said one friend, happy to know he had spotted the error in the man’s thinking. “Beauty is a matter of personal taste,” he said, looking momentarily philosophic.

“In that case, the music and its performance are not beautiful in any real way. Beauty is simply the feeling of pleasure that some people have when they hear it.”

The momentary silence betrayed the fact that his friends were in uncharted intellectual territory.

And then they broke into a simultaneous chorus of “I wouldn’t put it that way” and “not exactly” and “that’s not what we’re saying”.

Finally one spoke for them all. “The music is beautiful. But not everyone appreciates this kind of thing. We’re all different.” He didn’t seem to realise that he hadn’t answered the man, or said anything different.

The man knew his friends were running out of patience, but he hoped for a breakthrough. He prayed inwardly, and began speaking quietly, and directly.

“The way I see it, there are only two options to choose from. The first is that the music is not beautiful in reality. When it is heard, different minds react to its otherwise meaningless form to produce pleasure or disdain. When those who like it call it ‘beautiful’, they are actually referencing their own psychological event of pleasure.”

His friends seemed to be listening, their eyes occasionally darting to each other and back to the man.

“The other is that the music is beautiful in itself. It approximates the Beautiful, that is, what is beautiful in God’s mind. Since man has been created to love beauty, when some people love what is beautiful, and others dislike it, it is a reflection on their own ordered or warped souls. The different reactions are not random reactions, but good hearts loving what is good, and bad hearts hating it because it is good.”

The last statement set the cat amongst the pigeons. Violent head-shaking and verbal negations followed. They seemed to be climbing over each other’s sentences to respond. One emerged on top of the others. “Are you trying to say that the people who didn’t like tonight’s performance are evil?” he demanded, his voice rising to a near-shriek on the last word.

The man waited to answer, and deliberately lowered his voice.

“There could be good reasons for not liking the music tonight. You could find fault with the musicians’ execution of the piece. You could hypothetically fault the composer for music that was unsymmetrical, disorderly, unimaginative, juvenile, or even lawless. But that would be another way of saying it was not beautiful. Which would be saying that it did not honour God and the reality which art is supposed to portray. If the music was false in its portrayal of reality, then those who love truth should dislike it. If the music was not beautiful in its use of musical symbols, then those who love beauty should dislike it. But if it was beautiful, then it truly would be wrong to dislike it.”

So, you’re saying it would be a sin to dislike the music we heard tonight?” asked one, sounding like a journalist.

“I’m saying it is a sin to hate what God loves, and it is holy to love what He loves.”

And how do you know if God loved the music tonight?”, asked one in a tone that suggested she wanted to poke a bony finger into his chest.

The man scanned the faces of his friends, and then dropped his gaze, looking at his shoes with sadness.

“I’d hoped that a group of God-lovers would agree on that very point.”

Some Thoughts on Two Sincere Christian Rappers

October 2, 2009

9Marks has the audio of an interview with two Christian rappers, Shai Linne and Voice (Curtis Allen, also a pastor), which can be heard here.

This post is simply an attempt to respond to and evaluate some of the statements made in the interview.

By way of prefacing my remarks, let me state two things.

First, let me say all the obligatory things without which you are considered mean-spirited, narrow and not worth hearing. So here goes: I greatly respect Mark Dever, and consider much of his work a huge blessing to the church. I am thankful for 9Marks ministries. Shai Linne sounds like a dedicated, sincere believer who has an intelligent understanding of preaching, the authority of Scripture and a better-than-average theological understanding. Curtis Allen sounds likewise like a dedicated pastor, with a powerful story of conversion, and someone who is, in principle, committed to the Scriptures, and not to a rabidly pragmatic form of ministry. He is gracious in his approach to the subject.  Both seem to be dedicated to serving the body of Christ, which makes us at least brothers, if not full-blown allies.

Second, let me alert you to the kinds of intellectual moods which prejudice our judgement in this kind of thing.

* We seem to be less able to critically judge an argument than our forbearers were. They were able to separate the argument from the person, and rationally analyse the merits of an argument. We are prone to play the man and not the ball. That means, if we think the person is sincere and loves God, we decide generally in favour of his argument, regardless of its details. Alternatively, if we think the person is disobedient and worldly, we decide against his argument, regardless of the details.

* We are living in a time of aesthetic relativism within Western Christianity, where generally conservative people feel that the last remaining and defensible absolute is propositional truth, while the medium in which it is delivered is culturally flexible wrapping paper, forever lost to the modernists (thought they don’t often realise as much). With that attitude, any argument about contextualisation, contemporising the message or reaching a particular culture seems to bowl everyone over into acquiescing silence.

* We are also in a time of impatience with detailed and extended argument. Dever caricatured a fundamentalist’s approach to music as “believing that the rhythm is inherently sensual.”  The argument against rap as appropriate music for worship or the development of Christian affections does not necessarily (or merely) hold that a rhythm is inherently sensual, but that music can communicate meaning intrinsically, associatively, conventionally or ascriptively. Certainly things that are dissonant with Christianity at best, and sinful at worst, can be communicated. Who would disagree that communication can be sinful or harmful? However, it takes some time to articulate that argument, and not everyone wants to give the argument the time it needs to be heard.

* We are living in a time of pragmatism, where results or even intended results always trump means and methods. If results are seen in the form of conversions, or if there is any sign that God has used something to draw people to Himself, all opposing arguments are thrown to the wind, forgetting that God has used many, many things which He disapproves of (think: Balaam).

With that said, let me focus on a few remarks during the interview. At one point, Dever asks both men to respond to critics of Christian rap, who say that the music is ‘inherently sensual’ (an unclear question at best). If I construe their response correctly, they believe Christian rap is defensible for the following reasons:

No musical form is inherently sinful. There is no objective standard to judge musical form. Musical forms are cultural preferences, which ought not to be spiritualised, but accepted as part of the diversity of the body of Christ. Relativism is bad, but when it comes to the arts, our preferences are culturally formed, meaning (as I take it) that they are morally neutral. While rap has a negative association, all things in the world have such baggage, and God ultimately redeems things for His use, meaning He does the same with rap. The final standard to which all arguments must submit is the glory of God.

Some short responses:

  1. There is no objective standard to judge music by, if what you mean by objective standard is some kind of Ten Commandments of melody, harmony and rhythm. But then, there is no ‘objective standard’ for judging what God means by ‘Be angry and sin not’ or ‘let us worship Him acceptably with reverence and awe’ or ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. Where do I go to find out what kind of anger is pleasing to God? Where do I go to find out what constitutes ‘reverence and awe’? In other words, we have confused categories. We want propositional definitions for affective truth. Later on in the interview it is suggested that artistic forms don’t submit to the same kind of absolute judgements as other things do. And this is partially true, but the truth it omits turns the flavour of the argument towards something less than true. Affective, and therefore artistic truth, is not explained in the black-and-white forms of propositional truth. To expect it to be so would be to expect it to be something other than art. However, does that mean it has no standard in God’s universe to be judged by? Is there no such thing as the true, the good and the beautiful? Is it impossible to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:10)? Aesthetic judgement is not to be separated from moral judgement. God expects us to subsume them all in our thinking and judging (Phil 4:8, Heb 5:14).

  2. It is of course true that our preferences are shaped by culture. We ‘don’t come out of the womb liking Handel’. But all that says is that our loves are shaped by our culture. What it fails to deal with is whether those loves are pleasing to God, or whether the culture in which they were shaped was pleasing to God. Some cultures have made a virtue of shrewd betrayal. If you grow up in this culture, you will no doubt love such a thing. This does not make such a preference morally acceptable.  What is being attempted here is to suggest that preferences do not have moral dimensions, and that if the preference is shaped by a culture, then only cultural imperialism or elitism would suggest that such a preference is morally dubious. Once again, we need an understanding of culture that goes beyond superficial notions of ethnicity and food preferences, and reckons with the moral imagination and religious worldview of a group of people.

  3. I was a little disappointed with the response to the question about the negative associations of rap music. The answer seemed to suggest that everything is worldly, and therefore everything is redeemable. That seems to be a confusion between the world of John 3:16 and the world of I John 2:15. Not everything in the world is worldly – I Timothy 4:4. It is fairly clear that while God can redeem many things, in some cases such redemption can only be accomplished when the thing itself has been utterly transformed. God can redeem pornographers, but we all understand the contradiction of Christian pornography. God could redeem a nudist colony, but not by turning it into a Christian nudist colony. Sometimes the depravity of something requires either its complete transformation or even its destruction to be made pleasing to God.

  4. Finally, I resonate with the idea that all things must be submitted to the glory of God. However, the danger is that we can use this as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card” for all our actions. If I’m doing this for the glory of God, then it trumps all other objections. This seems to me to be a  form of pragmatism. The end – the glory of God – always justifies the means.

There is more that can be said, and I don’t want to over-analyse remarks that were made in an interview, and not in a formal debate. There is much to commend in these men. But worship is not a trifle, and it is worth disagreeing over.

As one who grew up and spent many years in an inner-city ghetto, and lived on rap and hip-hop, I can tell you that what people need is not more of the same, but a transcendant alternative.