Archive for June, 2012

Why Listen to Tozer?

June 29, 2012

A.W. Tozer is found in places where he probably wouldn’t have been invited to preach. His books will be found on the shelves of the charismatic church and the conservative, the Reformed and the Wesleyan, the fundamentalist and the seeker-sensitive. Tozer’s writings were of such penetrating clarity that they resonate with people of very different theological leanings. Perhaps this partly explains his nickname – ‘the twentieth century prophet’. He did not claim any personal gift of special revelation, but his insight was prophet-like: incisive, penetrating and filled with unusual clarity. His bold warnings to the church have nearly all proved well-founded, though not many of them have been heeded.

When a writer is found to have appeal across such broad lines, there are only two ways to explain that. The first is that his writings are so generalised, so ambiguous, and so populist in appeal that almost anyone can pick it up and find some soothing platitudes. Such writing is of such a vague nature that as Tozer himself put it – if it were medicine it wouldn’t heal, and if it were poison it wouldn’t kill. This can hardly be pinned onto Tozer’s writings.

The second possible explanation is that the writer writes with such illumination that his writings are almost always ‘close to the centre’; that all those within the realm of orthodoxy identify with his keen sense of understanding truth. His writings send forth ‘a distinct sound’, a ringing call to orthodoxy. His writings build on the faith of the historical, universal church with the moss of worldly pragmatism or false tradition scraped off.

It is this second explanation that is surely the reason for Tozer’s broader appeal, and one reason to hear his voice on the issues of worship and music. Clarity, incisive vision, and a catholic spirit are very often missing in this debate, and Tozer’s voice deserves to be heard. Tozer’s voice still carries authority to people on both sides of the debate.

Tozer was seldom, if ever, guilty of towing a party line or grinding a denominational axe. He was not afraid of the opinions of men, perhaps to a fault. When reading Tozer, one never feels he is placating the scribes from a particular ‘camp. Tozer’s spiritual independence comes out strongly in his writings; he had little time for the provincialism of many in Christendom, or the desire for Christians to curry favour with one another. Today, it is becoming rarer to find a writer who is not looking over his shoulder as to how his circle of friends or ministerial colleagues will review or regard his work. As such, we can approach Tozer’s writings and not fear a hidden allegiance to one side or the other.

Another reason for considering Tozer’s views is that he was largely self-taught. Tozer valued tertiary education and seminary training highly, but did not have those opportunities himself. As such, he diligently set about educating himself in everything from English grammar to poetry, from philosophy to theology. And Tozer showed no partiality when it came to these theologians. His writings freely quote from Augustine to Wesley, from Spurgeon to A.B. Simpson, from Fenelon to Martin Luther, from early revivalists to John Calvin. Tozer grazed where many seminarians are warned off by their professors; indeed, many would not be able to read from them and profit as he did. While many will regard his lack of formal education as a reason to disregard his views, I see great value in hearing from a man who, as it were, gave all the writers of the ages a fair hearing. He was not prejudiced against any. While he certainly had his own views, he did not judge a writer to be a heretic before he had read him. To me, this places Tozer in a unique position regarding this debate. Certainly it would be naïve to imagine that he was not shaped in some measure by his own denomination. But in Tozer we find a man who studied his Bible, and indeed, most books he read, on his knees. This does not give all his works doctrinal or intellectual infallibility. The point is, Tozer’s experience was to be thrust into the ministry before he could be made into a unbending disciple of one particular theological system.

And to this we must add, if his lack of theological training unnerves some, they must simply consider his orthodoxy on almost every other theological issue he wrote on. His views on the inerrancy of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the need for regeneration, the resurrection of the body and the Second Coming are impeccably sound. If he came to these by reading and studying humbly and diligently, there is sure to be some value in his writings on worship.

Certainly, Tozer had his weaknesses. He was no aesthetician. Nor was he a scholar of the first rank. He was a pastor. He was a generalist who strove to be a competent thinker. And as a pastor, he seems to me to be a model of what shepherds of this age should strive for, at least in the area of learning and personal piety. Given that he had come through some of the more vigorous expressions of revivalism, that he wrote and thought as he did is quite remarkable.

Several years ago I invested in some software that contains everything that Tozer had written. It’s been as invaluable to me as my complete volumes of Spurgeon. I’ve spent some time searching his works for his views on music in worship. What I hope to do in the next months is present a near-complete collection of Tozer’s views on worship music. There are some that I don’t completely agree with, but I don’t intend to cherry-pick only the quotes that seem to support my position. To my knowledge, these will be the collected written words of Tozer on worship music.

Does Christ Redeem Cultural Expressions?

June 22, 2012

We have studied some statements by Shai Linne and boiled them down to four propositions.
1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

We have considered the first two, and now we turn our attention to the last two. Linne’s statements about redemption are fairly common views in this debate. In essence, such views see Christ as redeeming sinners and their ways, meaning that those now-redeemed sinners can turn those redeemed ways toward Christ and His glory.

What does Scripture say about our redemption? First Peter 1:18-19 is probably one of our clearest answers:

1 Peter 1:18-19 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

Notice who or what is redeemed. Believers are redeemed. What are they redeemed from? They are bought out of their former futile ways or behavior. If culture is in fact an expression of a belief system, then culture would be the conduct that emerges from that collective view of ultimate reality. Peter says that Christ redeems us from this very thing: from the culture that emerged from the futile and aimless views, propagated from one generation to another. Christians are in the process of progressively being changed from this old way of thinking and acting into a new way.

Here’s the key question: Does Christ redeem the futile ways themselves? Does He redeem the ways in which we expressed our ungodliness, so that they may now be enlisted in His service? Or to carry the logic through, does He redeem the cultural artifacts that were used to express ungodliness? Here we do not mean, does Christ redeem the computer that was used for pornography, or does Christ redeem the sound system that was used for raucous parties. It is nonsense to speak of a redeemed computer or a redeemed boom-box. What we mean is, are there cultural expressions, such as music genres, certain leisure activities or forms of recreation, that Christ redeems and transforms?

First, we note that this would be an argument from silence, because the Scripture only speaks of believers being redeemed. Second, if Christ redeems us from futile ways, what will the implications be for those cultural artifacts that propagated those ways? A man who was a nudist and owned a nudist colony can be redeemed, and he is therefore redeemed from the futile way of nudity. What will that do to the cultural artifact of the nudist colony that propagated this sinful behavior? Well, put simply, it does not redeem it. The nudist colony ceases to exist, and the land it was on is now used for something God-glorifying. But it does not become a Christian nudist colony, for no such thing can exist. The cultural artifact of a nudist colony could not be redeemed or transformed. It could only be abandoned. It was itself a sinful expression of sinful hearts, and sinful behavior is not what Christ redeems. He redeems people from sinful behavior.
[To pre-empt my friendly objectors: Yes, I have chosen nudity as an example because we’d all agree that people need to be redeemed from nudism, and nudism has a vehicle that promotes it – the nudist colony. If you feel that this is an unfair comparison to rap, will you not concede that people need to be redeemed from what 99% of rap propagates? Won’t you agree that rap is usually used as a vehicle for these ungodly values? Is there no way that the shoe fits – that the form was developed because it suits the content?]

If rap emerged from a worldview that did not have Christ at its center, and was used to express values and beliefs that were hostile to Christ, then the form itself is linked to its original worldview and purpose. Christ did not come to redeem arrogance, pride, murder, fornication, greed, rape, rebellion, illegal drug-use, gangsterism, hatred, and so forth. He came to redeem people from those things. To then say that Christ redeems the form that emerged from futile ways is to misunderstand what form is, and to misunderstand what redemption does and for whom.

Form is not a placeholder; it is an expression. If expressions are sinful, Christ does not redeem them. Redemption is not a hard-scrubbing of sinful barnacles off a neutral object. Redemption is Christ’s buying humans out of sinful ways so that they may glorify God.

Despite accusations to the contrary, I hope my readers understand that I bear no hostility to rappers like Linne. Like Paul, I am thankful whenever the gospel is preached, even if the method or motive when doing so is not commendable (Phil 1:18). However, it’s some of the responses to these articles and other recent similar ones that are very telling, and curiously disproportionate, if this matter is indeed the non-issue and matter of preference that such responses usually say it is.

Regardless of how bystanders interpret my motives, my understanding of the Christian imagination and the affections leads me to see that matters like this are not peripheral, stylistic matters of personal preference. They go to the heart of how we imagine God, which is foundational and fundamental. We don’t want to be idolaters. That’s my agenda.

Are Media ‘By Definition’ Morally Neutral?

June 15, 2012

In Shai Linne’s statements, we identified four propositions:

1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

Last post, we considered Linne’s notion that rap is a medium like cameras or canvases. We saw that equating rap with media such as these is unhelpful, for the simple reason that such devices do not carry messages of their own. Rap, as a form, already has expressive value, and contains meaning before the lyrics are added. (Careful readers, please note: Linne was not simply using an analogy. Linne said that rap is a medium. That’s not an analogy, it’s a predication.) In short, we found that Linne’s use of medium contains equivocation.

We now consider the idea that media are morally neutral until informed by content. In Linne’s words, a medium is by definition morally neutral until informed by content. That is to say, what makes a medium a medium is that it carries no moral value, no aesthetic contribution, no enlargement or diminution of the rightness or wrongness of the message it conveys. Once it has such moral value, by Linne’s definition, it is no longer solely a medium.

To falsify Linne’s statement, we need either or both of two things to be true. We must find a medium which carries moral value apart from its having been ‘informed by content’ – invalidating his definition – or we must simply show that rap does not conform to this definition of medium. Strangely enough, supporters of Linne’s view will attribute to rap creative beauty, missing the point that this already places it in the realm of the moral, for what is beautiful is good, and what is ugly is evil. Since we have already dealt with rap being a medium in a different way to canvases in the last post, let’s briefly consider the idea of ‘contentless’ media being intrinsically morally neutral.

Do we really have to say “Marshall McLuhan”? One would think that 47 years of the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ having been in the common tongue would have influenced evangelicals on this topic, but alas. And it wasn’t only McLuhan. Ken Myers wrote All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes in 1989, asking Christians if popular culture was a worthy or fitting medium to communicate the transcendant. Neil Postman wrote a whole book in 1985 on how the medium of television influences how political debate, serious discussion and news are changed in their meanings by television. In Postman’s view, the medium of television shapes the message – turning all it carries into a form of entertainment.

Knowing the media shape messages is hardly a recent idea, or even a minority view. Indeed, the discussion continues with newer media. Articles abound on the effects of social media on communication, the effect of seeing only the image of a preacher on a screen in a campus church, or the Googlization of knowledge. When something can shape a message, it is no longer morally neutral. It can so limit or transform a message as to make it less (or more) true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy. It can falsify a message, beautify a message, trivialise a message, or ennoble a message. This is moral value.

Of course the medium has moral value, for the medium has a form. That form presents possibilities, limitations and meanings of its own. Sending the message “Can’t wait to see you on Friday” on a piece of decorated writing paper to a friend carries a very different meaning from having it inscribed on a butcher’s knife and mailing it anonymously. Further, the medium carries value, perceptions, and associations through how it is used, who uses it, when it is used and where. Indeed, this was much of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Though dealing with the neutral substance of food, and the seemingly meaningless idols of the Gentiles, Paul showed how the use of that food had moral meaning. Identification, association, edification, and a use of freedom responsibly were among the matters that gave huge moral meaning to the decisions that the Corinthians had to make. Arguing for the intrinsic neutrality of a medium is almost irrelevant if such a medium shapes meaning the moment it is used, or transmits messages. Truth be told, most media have this before they are ‘informed by content’.

In short, media are not morally neutral until informed by content. Instead, media are more or less ingressive to the messages they carry. And some are positively hostile or contradictory to the original ideas and affections of the messages they carry.

One of the necessary paths to correct conclusions in the worship wars is not to unthinkingly accept commonly believed platitudes and assumptions. It is necessary to take the time to consider notions such as ‘a medium is by definition morally neutral’, even when those notions come from those who we think are on the right side of the theological barricades, and whose convictions and example carry weight. In fact, in those cases, it is especially necessary.

Is Rap Really a Canvas?

June 8, 2012

The following abridged discussion took place here.

Credo Mag: In the past you have been criticized for redeeming such a “depraved genre” as hip-hop. What is your response to this criticism?

Shai Linne: Arguments against “depraved genres” are ultimately arguments against redemption itself, because depraved genres are the products of depraved human beings- who need redemption. (In fact, “depraved genre” is a misnomer because it’s ascribing moral value to a medium, which by definition is morally neutral until informed by content.) Once God has redeemed a person, it’s fitting for the Christian to take the “genres” or vehicles  (such as books, cameras, canvasses, the internet, language, musical forms, etc.) that he or she once used for evil and now use them to promote the glory of God. Those who make the objection (especially as they use the internet to do so) are often unaware that they themselves use “depraved genres” all the time.

Shai Linne’s response to the question can be boiled down to four propositions:
1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

I’d like to consider these propositions, and then weigh the validity of the argument. Let’s begin with the first: rap is a medium.

What is a medium? What does Shai Linne mean by medium? A dictionary definition of medium would say something like a medium is a means of conveying something. Fairly vague, and unhelpfully broad. Air can be a medium for airplanes, water a medium for fish, and wires a medium for electricity.

In the context of the discussion, Shai Linne is talking about media for messages. That is, he is focusing on those media that can communicate ideas – be they musical ideas, images, or messages written in language and recorded on a screen or a book. He later gives the following as examples of such media: “books, cameras, canvasses, the internet, language, musical forms, etc.” Leaving aside that those are very unlike things to be grouped together, it seems clear that he is limiting his discussion to media that can carry messages.

Linne regards the musical genre of rap as a medium. That is, rap, and we would assume, other genres of music, are simply media for messages to be added to them– on the order of cameras and canvasses. To be fair, perhaps he has defended this assertion elsewhere. However, here the validity of the idea is simply assumed to be true.

I would say, for Linne’s assertion to be true, rap must be like other media of messages in the same way. In Linne’s categorization, these media carry no messages of their own. That is, cameras have no messages of their own until a message is added – until an image is captured. The device only communicates the story of its pictures once those pictures are added. Canvases have no messages of their own until a message is added – until a picture is painted. The canvas only communicates the ideas of the painting once they have been added.

Does rap qualify as a medium in this sense? That is, can we extract rap as a set of rhythms and verbal intonations, that remain meaningless until lyrics are added? Is rap like canvas, film or memory space in a computer?

To answer that, let’s propose an experiment. Imagine hearing a rap song in a language foreign to you. The message of the lyrics is for all practical intents and purposes meaningless to you. All you can make out is the music and the intonation of the rapper. This is as close as we can get to Linne’s idea of rap as ‘medium without message’. As you listen, does the music carry the neutral significance of a blank screen? Is it film awaiting an image, creating in you no responses whatsoever? Is it a blank sheet of paper, or 100 megabytes of space waiting to be used? Do you really feel nothing, and make no associations, and experience no like or dislike for the music?

I doubt it. I think we hear it the way we hear the neighbours arguing. We can’t always make out the words, but we understand the mood, and therefore we understand the significance. An angry tone of voice may be a medium to communicate an idea, but it is more than a medium. It is a form – a shape into which the words will be poured. It has a particular shape by its volume and tempo and pitch. And before we add the words to it, it is a shape which already has a meaning of its own.

If the reply comes that such interpretations of rap come through association or by how rap is used, my answer is, how does that help the idea that rap is like a camera or a canvas? In fact, it tends to weaken such a notion. It shows that rap, for whatever reason, carries meaning in ways that devices and technologies do not. If rap is a medium, then it is a medium in a very different  way to media like devices and canvases. It is more of a mold that will shape the words placed into it– and ought not to be compared to radios, MP3 players or computer screens.

Hold the Superlatives, Please

June 1, 2012

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me”.

– C.S. Lewis

Lewis helps us to recognize a lot of modern Christian songwriting for what it is: laziness. No doubt, many of these songs are vast improvements on the Bliss and Crosby cliché-mill. Certainly, it’s a breath of fresh air to be singing about the faith without a constant nautical theme: waves, anchors, lighthouses and ships ahoy. And any serious Christian will be thankful for an injection of sound theological ideas into the gelatinous world of evangelical conviction.

With all that said, I find Lewis’ sentiment played out before me in not a few modern songs. These songs seem to try to gather as many superlative adjectives as possible that will fit the metre of the song. These are then piled on top of one another, and the result is a rapid-fire of high-concentrate adjectives. The resulting lyrics are something like: “Indescribable majesty, incomparable glory, unbounded mercy, immeasurable beauty…You’re the highest, greatest, most wonderful, most awesome…” – you get the idea.

Yet for all this, the effect is palpably flat. Instead of soaring into the heights of praising God as the ultimate Being, one sings these super-hero adjectives with a sense of dull oughtness: yes, I should feel God’s surpassing value, but I don’t. Perhaps if I keep singing these superlatives with sincerity, I will.

Some worshippers succeed, others don’t. Some do better at creating placebo emotions to connect to an incomplete thought, until like Pavlov’s dog, the melody of the song manages to bring those feelings back every time. Others content themselves with the thought that ascribing superlative adjectives to God is surely the right way to go, even if little moral excitement is raised in response to them.

Lewis helps us to see the difference between mere ascription and description. Ascription is fine in its place – and yes, the psalmists certainly use ascriptions of praise. They rarely, if ever, do this apart from some metaphorical description of God. Ascription by itself does little to fire the imagination of the reader, or in our case, the worshipper. The job of a writer of works of imagination (as poetry is) is to do more than report matters, but to transport the reader through the imagination. Likewise, a songwriter wants to do more than simply inform disinterested listeners as to the objective worth of God. A songwriter wishes to draw Christians to encounter the beauty of God through poetic descriptions. As a work of imagination, poetry has its power through descriptive analogies. We feel God’s satisfying glory not when we sing, “You are incomparably satisfying”, but when we sing, “We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still.” We feel God’s power not when we sing, “You are unimaginably powerful”, but when we sing, “Thy chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form.” We feel God’s love not when we sing, “Your love is unbelievable”, but when we sing, “The King of Love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His, And He is mine forever.” Description evokes affection; ascription, by itself, simply invites agreement or disagreement.

Merely stringing adjectives together that rhyme or fit the melody is ultimately a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper. The result is a frustrating emptiness as we sing. The writer has cheated us, and abandoned us before his work is done. He has found a pleasing melody and invited us to feel something toward God. Just as we begin to use our minds to consider God, he leaves us with a true ascription of praise about God with nothing to help our affections to rise to the occasion. He expects us to do imaginative pole-vaulting with the twigs of his superlative synonyms. We are to do his work for him, and he skips town unmolested because he dumped a bunch of fancy-sounding adjectives upon us to the melody of a pretty ballad.

God’s people need better. Songwriters can do better. It is not as if we don’t have an inspired songbook to show us how it’s done.

***

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.
Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee.
Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips:
When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.
Psalm 63:1-5