Archive for the ‘Tradition’ Category

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – 1

May 24, 2013

Who knows how many volumes have been written by Christians through the centuries? Spurgeon’s works alone are 63 volumes, which are equivalent to the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unlike Spurgeon’s works, not every Christian’s writings have been preserved, or been worth preserving.

Wesley said we ought to be people of one book, but students of many. With Scripture being our Book of books, we’d do well to learn from those Christian writings that have seemed to rise to the top, and withstand the winnowing of time. These ‘devotional classics’ span time, denomination or tradition, and genre, for lack of a better term. They come from Ante-Nicene, Nicene, post-Nicene periods, from the Middle Ages, and from Reformation, Enlightenment, Awakening and modern periods. They were written in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Their authors are early bishops, martyrs, monks, scholastics, reformers, separatists, mystics, puritans, pastors, and missionaries. They are from the Eastern and Western church, reformers who were in the Roman Catholic church, reformers who came out, and reformers who remained in. They are Anglican, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. And they write sermons, poems, confessions, prayers, autobiographies, letters, and general treatments of the Christian life. I’d like to begin doing a brief description and review of some of these classics, with some choice excerpts from each.

What is the value of reading these dusty treasures? I can think of two reasons.

First, the value of reading some of the best devotional works is of inestimable spiritual value. A.W. Tozer wrote, “After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.”

Second, to be truly helpful to our generation, we should live with these past saints. Much of modern Christianity has made a host of the non-culture we call secularism, and to the degree that it has become identified with this non-culture, it has become a non-religion, simply an eclectic set of parochial pieties, idiosyncratic moralisms, prejudices and assumptions. Reading these classics is a way of hearing what generations other than our own have said. T.S. Eliot pointed out in Tradition and the Individual Talent that to enter into the stream of historical understanding is to begin to know more than the thoughts of your own generation. “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” You only understand your times, and can speak to them effectively, or dare I say it, with relevance, if you have viewed your own generation from the perspective of other generations. You will only know what is distinctive (for good or ill) about your generation if you have regularly inhabited a world that transcends your particular time and place. Failing this, you are just an echo-chamber for the thoughts of our day, and if they be in error, you are a repeater-station for widely accepted error.

Someone might be understandably skeptical about the notion of orthopathy, or right loves. But let him vigorously work his way through these classics, and he will find a similarity of sentiment across the ages that seems to fit very well with the idea of orthopathy, and in many cases, makes the pieties of our age seem foreign. Don’t take my word for it. Live with Christians from other ages, and then decide whose piety is the odd one out.

A few words about this mixed multitude. The list we’ll be working through includes people from doctrinal traditions quite different from our own. We sit at their feet not because we want to embrace all their errors, nor because we seek to re-make them in our image (or vice-versa). A bee can find nectar in the weed as well as in the flower, said the holiness preacher Joseph H. Smith.

Finally, reading these works will mean some spiritual effort, which I heartily encourage. Again, Tozer: “To enjoy a great religious work requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have experienced. The early Christian Fathers, the mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarefied and none but the God-enamored can come.”

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Why We Need The Worship Wars

April 26, 2013

Unless you believe in orthopathy as essential to Christianity, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They represent the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar to them. They represent the immature clamour of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe, as I do,  in the very notion of orthopathy, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before the heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After the definition, deviations represent heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be thankful for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, not an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. And in two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his masterful misrepresentation of liturgical history in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, enjoys surveying the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times, as did the critics of Watts’ hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular. That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are simply the contemporary version of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard orthopathy in one generation, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties are often regarded with suspicion, and once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over orthopathy such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favour of entertainment at the end of the 19th century, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

A Catechism on Judgement in Worship

December 14, 2012

How are we to worship God?
We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:
– The reading of Scripture
– The preaching of Scripture
– The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
– The offering of public prayer
– The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?
We know this through exercising sound judgement.

What is sound judgement?
At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil 4:8) – and the opposites of these. Judgement can also be thought of as discernment, discrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgement fundamental to worship?
1) To worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty.
2) To offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of our offerings. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil 1:10) and use it for God’s glory. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement, or false in sentiment.
3) To rightly respond to God from the heart,  we must be able to distinguish between affections, and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, or between shades of joy, fear, or sorrow, requires judgement.
4) To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgement. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?
No, judgement is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully, or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Proud judgmentalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgements be subjective?
Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgements made by subjects can still conform to the good.

Why can’t we just be given a list of approved hymns and songs?
If everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgements of others, but a maturing conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgement.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship?
No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone on earth should be a literary critic. We should not be afraid to learn from them, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?
God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgement?
First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgement or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.
Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning, if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgement by example and exposure.

How can I judge something that I already like or dislike?
First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.
Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.
Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard?
The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:
1) Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
2) Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgement – people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
3) Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
4) Write poems, songs, prayers and sermons that are true, good and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?
We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialize God, humanity or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good and beautiful.

From Palestrina to Pino

October 19, 2012

I think you should watch these. Set aside a few hours, and enjoy.

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If you hunt, you might find most or parts of the eight episodes online. Or you might simply splurge and give the BBC some more filthy lucre, for the two series on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.

If for no other reason, watch them to hear The Sixteen sing some of the most beautiful vocal music written for the human voice, and to hear Harry Christopher’s explanations of what the composers were doing in those works.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to be jarred or upset, ask this question: from Gregorian, to Palestrina, to Byrd, to Bach, to Brahms, to Pärt and Rutter, how did we get to this?

From each of the composers profiled in the Sacred Music programs to one another, you can draw a nearly straight line. As you progress in time, they build on each other, and develop from one another. Our last example, however, is not just the latest in a natural progression, it is a break altogether. It does not represent an ‘updated style’; it represents an altogether foreign view of what is good, what is beautiful, what God deserves, and how His people respond to Him. Allegri, Tallis, Luther, Bruckner, and Gorecki are different to one another but equivalent in their sentiment. Our sock-waving friends have no correlation to historic Christian sentiment.

So how did we come to this? It is not as if the rolling on of the years brought this naturally, like your child’s height chart. Nor does one go from Allegri’s Miserere to “You Spin Me Right ‘Round Jesus” passively, like sun-bleached paint on the outside of the church. Humans made deliberate choices, and the results of the choices we made are right in front of us on YouTube.

If we are to change matters, we would do well to ask: What was rejected, and why? What was preferred and loved and promoted? What is still being rejected and preferred? Forget about the sock-waving worship-leader; ask, why is there a supposedly Christian audience for this stuff? What did the parents and pastors of those children do (or not do) so that the people in that clip had a strong liking for that music, and considered it worship?

Here’s the trick. Instead of beginning your answers with “They…” or “Some people…”, begin the answers with “We…”

The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works.