Archive for September, 2010

Unformed Expression

September 25, 2010

Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences is one of the more demanding reads you’ll encounter. I’ll confess it took me more than one reading to grasp his arguments. At times, I have felt that the book feels something like Proverbs, without the standalone nature of each proverb. Throughout the book, Weaver keeps dropping these gems of insight, which one often picks up on a re-read. One of them is this:

 “Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”.

To put it another way, when people express themselves, whether through speech, writing, poetry, music, or other art forms, their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, supporting arguments, conclusions and the like. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Music needs a melody, harmony, rhythm, metre, timbre, and so forth. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a flexible mould. The mould can be changed and flexed, but apart from the mould, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the constraints of form, and human expression tends towards ignorance. If the thoughts and emotions of people are not channelled and disciplined by the structure of speech or poetry or music or the like, they become disorganised, disparate, disjointed and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, least of all the speaker. It increases ignorance.

Consider some cringeworthy examples from within the walls of the church: A preacher whose desire to be extemporaneous exceeds his supply of helpful things to say; testimony time, where the one testifying cannot make his or her point without saying it twenty different ways over fifteen minutes; prayer meetings where the prayers are more an exercise in repeating stock clichés five to eight minutes at a time than anything else; songs written by the song leader earlier that week (or day); “prophetic singing”, where the song leader plays chords and makes up words as he goes along; ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies.

In these situations, we grow exasperated. We wish the preacher would simply stick to his notes. We wish the one praying would shorten his prayer to the things needful to ask for. We wish the one giving a testimony would focus succinctly on what will give God glory. We wish the spontaneous poets…well, we wish they would just memorise and repeat someone else’s poems.

After enduring such experiences, we of the free church tradition, where worship is not controlled by set liturgies, can often understand why other churches had such liturgies, with their written prayers and responses: because unformed expression tends towards ignorance.

Why do we all at once sigh under the burden of unformed expression in the church, and yet regard it as a duty to allow unformed expression to prosper? Perhaps it is a kind of spin-off from believing in the priesthood of the believer. Since we believe every believer has direct access to God through Christ, we tend to think that this ought to work itself out into a kind of verbal democracy, where everyone must have the chance to speak up and out. We think it some kind of popery if we limit the outlet of personal expression. We think that the good intentions of hearts must be given a good berth in the church.

Similarly, we have an odd view of the Spirit’s work. Somewhere, we have ingested the idea that what is pre-meditated and carefully written is somewhat unspiritual, whereas the Spirit’s work is spontaneous, eruptive, and a kind of seizure of the mind from above.

The truth is, I really don’t find anything in Scripture to polarise the Spirit’s work from a careful respect for form. The man who hammers out his sermon in respect for how the human mind grasps knowledge is not working antithetically to the Spirit. He is working with what the Spirit made. The one who slowly crafts a hymn text over months is not ‘in the flesh’; he is honouring the form of poetry which God gave, and pouring his love for God into it, carefully and painstakingly. The one who comes to the prayer meeting with part of a written prayer, a Scripture text and some particular requests is not ‘quenching the Spirit’; he is honouring the means of grace that the Spirit uses. The church that wants to use well-formed expressions in the forms of well-written hymns, some well-written prayers, well-written sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship is not necessarily guilty of formalism. It may be that they have a high respect for form.

In fact, formed expression is what our hearts cry out for. We want our preachers to articulate the truth with a kind of clarity that enables us to grasp and retain it. We want our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to capture and express affections we have had but have not known how to express. We want corporate prayers to be elevated, careful, thoughtful and Scriptural. We want the music to have structural integrity, a tonal centre, and a normal and recognisable sense of progression. When people who are trained in the forms of rhetoric, poetry, or music give us a structure, it actually sets us free to express ourselves properly. The water of our affections flows in a strong, directed manner, instead of splattering chaotically.

Only egotists hate form, because it limits their ‘creativity’. The kind of people who persistently hate the well-formed expressions found in good hymns, good music, orderly sermons, or careful prayers are the kind of people who are in love with their own voices, and would like to receive worship, not offer it. Any form that submerges their own expression will be distasteful to them. They would exalt their feelings and motives above the actual effect their expressions will have. From such turn away.

Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only channels our expression, it further shapes it. Long-term exposure to well-formed expression has a maturing effect on our own. Our minds start to think in those forms. We find ourselves praying better prayers. Our spontaneous testimonies are more succinct, and more edifying. Our extemporaneous teaching has substance.

Beware the people who insist you choose between form and freedom. Good form is freedom. Good form enables freedom. Good form frees us to express ordinate affection.

Worth Reprinting

September 12, 2010

Kevin Bauder, on the difference between revivalism and biblical approaches to Christian growth:

[Revivalism is:]

1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.
 
(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.
 
(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”
 
(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.
 
(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.
 
(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.
 
(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.
 
Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this).
 
In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.
(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.
 
(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.
 
(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.
 
(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.
 
(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.
(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.
(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Premodern and Postmodern Converse Again

September 7, 2010

Post ambles up to Pre, who’s paging through a magazine.

Post: I’ve been thinking about your question, and I think I know the answer.

Pre: About where the Bigger Rule comes from?

Post: Yes. I think it has to do with survival. Survival of the fittest. Man has been on this earth for millions of years, and he has survived as a species by dwelling in groups, in tribes.

Pre: Okay.

Post: Well, to make a tribe work, people have to think of the needs of others before their own. By looking out for the Tribe, each human ensures his or her own survival.

Pre: So, you’re saying the Golden Rule comes from the instinct for survival.

Post: Exactly. Over millions of years, it’s become hard-wired into us. If the tribe is harmed, we might suffer. So my neighbour’s good becomes my own. I hate being robbed, but over time, I hate the Tribe being robbed too. Over thousands of years, these things become a kind of impulse within us. Religious types call it the conscience. But it’s really an evolved survival instinct.

Pre: So universal morality is a kind of biological instinct?

Post: Yes.

Pre: As far as I know, when we talk about instinct in animals, we mean an impulse in them which they always obey. Birds always migrate, they don’t need to be trained to do so.

Post: I know that.

Pre: Well, if right and wrong is really just an instinct, why do we need to be told to obey it? Why are we always exhorted to do the ‘right thing’, if, in fact, the right thing is a natural survival instinct?

Post: Well…we’re more evolved than those animals. We need reasons.

Pre: OK. Let’s say we give people reasons. We tell them they ought to obey this survival instinct for certain reasons. Why ought they obey the survival instinct?

Post: Because it’s better to live than to to die.

Pre: Who decides that?

Post: Well, it’s instinctual, dummy.

Pre: So what you’re saying is that the Instinct not only urges us to survive, but comes with it’s built-in morality?

Post: Huh?

Pre: It’s one thing to have the sense that drinking water is needful to stay alive. This is the instinct. But why I ought to obey that instinct, why I ought to want to listen to its promptings to keep me alive is something else. Being thirsty is one thing, wanting to keep living is another. Are you saying that blind instinct tells me it is better to live than to die?

Post: No, we just know that.

Pre: In other words, there is something that comes before or outside instinct, which tells us to obey instinct. There is some Law inside us which tells us it is better to live than to die, that it is a good thing to survive, that life is worth preserving. And because of this Law, we obey the survival instinct.

Post: I guess that’s true.

Pre: In which case, we’re back to where we were. Why do human beings have this thing inside them which tells them certain things are right, certain things are better, certain things are good, including preserving the human race and obeying the survival instinct?

Post: I don’t know.

Pre: For that matter, if the Golden Rule is really an instinct, why is it that we have to choose between instincts? If you hear a man being mugged, you have to choose between the instinct for self-protection, and the instinct to help. If you are being urged to choose between instincts, that can’t be the instinct itself.

Post: OK, fine. If the Golden Rule is not an instinct, then what is it? I suppose you’re going to say it’s something to do with “the soul”, and that sort of thing.

Pre: I haven’t said as much; I’m wondering what you believe. Do you think we have a soul?

Post: Yes, in the sense that we have an evolved kind of consciousness. We’re aware of ourselves.

Pre: What do you mean by evolved consciousness?

Post’s cell begins bleating out a tune, and he mouths “Later”.

Two Songs of Testimony

September 3, 2010

Consider the following two gospel songs:

No Other Plea (Eliza Hewitt (1851-1920) Tune  Sunshine in My Soul – Eliza Hewitt (1851-1920) Tune
My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;
I trust the ever living One,
His wounds for me shall plead.

Refrain

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.

Enough for me that Jesus saves,
This ends my fear and doubt;
A sinful soul I come to Him,
He’ll never cast me out.

Refrain

My heart is leaning on the Word,
The living Word of God,
Salvation by my Savior’s Name,
Salvation through His blood.

Refrain

My great Physician heals the sick,
The lost He came to save;
For me His precious blood He shed,
For me His life He gave.

Refrain

There is sunshine in my soul today,
More glorious and bright
Than glows in any earthly sky,
For Jesus is my Light.
 

 Refrain

O there’s sunshine, blessèd sunshine,
When the peaceful, happy moments roll;
When Jesus shows His smiling face,
There is sunshine in the soul.

There is music in my soul today,
A carol to my King,
And Jesus, listening, can hear
The songs I cannot sing.

Refrain

There is springtime in my soul today,
For, when the Lord is near,
The dove of peace sings in my heart,
The flowers of grace appear.

Refrain

There is gladness in my soul today,
And hope and praise and love,
For blessings which He gives me now,
For joys “laid up” above.

Refrain

Both of these songs would be considered ‘gospel songs’ or ‘songs of testimony’. Since Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 both speak of using our songs to speak, teach and admonish ‘one another’, there is certainly a place for a horizontal dimension to corporate worship. Gospel songs describe what they claim to be Christian experience. They are usually sung testimonies – the witness of one Christian to another of his or her experience of the grace of God, with possibly an invitation to the lost to experience the same thing.

What makes a gospel song useful? Quite simply, if the testimony recorded accords with a biblical experience of becoming or being a Christian. If the music to which that testimony is set presents an emotional colour in keeping with the various shades of Christian experience, it can be a useful song for singing to one another.

What makes a gospel song harmful? Simply, if the message of the lyrics trivialises, sentimentalises, romanticises or otherwise misrepresents the faith. This would make the testimony less than true. If the song’s description of Christianity makes it seem less serious than it is, or sweeter than it is, or more fun than it is, it is a distortion. If the music to which the lyrics are set presents a mood which warps the meaning of the words, or distorts our understanding of what affections we ought to feel as Christians, then the testimony is false.

In my opinion, one of the gospel songs above is useful for worship, and one of them is not. They’re both written by the same person, showing that the quality of one person’s output can vary greatly (and showing I have no axe to grind against Eliza E. Hewitt).

So considering both of the hymns above, evaluate them both with some of the following questions:

  1. What images are employed in each song to describe Christ and the Christian experience?
  2. What emotions are evoked by the use of these images? Do these emotions accord with Christian experience?
  3. Does anything in either (or both) of the songs make salvation seem less serious than it is?
  4. Does either (or both) of the songs use words about deep truths in a clichéd manner, so that you skip over the weight of them?
  5. What type of joy characterises the tune of each hymn? Flippant? Care-free? Triumphant? Jovial? Exultant? Is the kind of joy consonant with Christianity, and with the meaning of the lyrics?

In other words, which testimony is true, and which is not?