Archive for the ‘Worship’ Category

Neglected Battle Fronts

May 17, 2013

And the most notable era of Scottish preaching was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they had great power. In fact, the strongest reformational preaching going on in Europe at that time was in Scotland, the great preaching of the Reformation in Scotland. For two centuries it lasted. And Blakey writing in 1888 points out that what made the difference in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the preaching in Scotland was that the preachers viewed themselves…I like this, I never heard the phrase before…as warrior preachers…warrior preachers. And he says by that they meant that they believed that they were guardians and that any place where an assault came against the truth, they went to battle. They went to battle. I always wondered where I got this. But I guess some of that warrior mentality got down through the MacArthurs to me because that’s just how I think. If I see some area where I believe the truth is under assault, I feel like I need to run to that area and go to battle. That’s just the way I’m wired. At the same time, Blakey writes about the fact that there were more moderate preachers who wanted more love and tenderness and compassion and kindness and tolerance to be preached. They finally took over in the eighteenth century and you know the history, down went the church. And today in Scotland you’d look a long time to find anybody who preached any gospel at all. They were warrior preachers and they were guardians of the truth. And wherever the truth was being breached, or wherever the truth was being assaulted, they went to that front and engaged in battle. And this is one of those fronts for me. I run from front to front, as you know.

 – John MacArthur, “Personal Commitment to the Church, Part 1”, sermon preached November 18, 2001

John MacArthur has been one of the important influences on my ministry, preaching and thinking. When I was still in college, I found out he was a hot potato amongst independent Baptists, and this made me even more curious about the man. For the most part, his ministry has edified and challenged me.

His approach of doing battle where the truth is under fire has also influenced me. I am thankful for the battles he has fought, particularly against easy-believism, seeker-friendly pragmatism, charismatic chaos, and attacks on the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, I am thankful for many men who have fought other battles: Mark Dever against aberrant ecclesiology, Wayne Grudem against egalitarianism, Kevin DeYoung against emergence, John Piper against New Perspective, and a host of others who have fought against some threat to the faith. Though I seldom mention them when blogging, this is not because I do not appreciate their efforts. I have benefited from them, and some of their books sit in our church library. Far be it from me to try to say better what these men have already said. I’m happy to let their books and sermons do the most eloquent talking on those areas.

Instead, I have spent my blogging time trying to do battle on that front which seems to get less attention from these heavyweights: the trivialisation of Christian worship, the warping of the Christian imagination, and the secularisation of pulpit and altar. I choose a supplemental approach: I attempt to say what is seldom said, or said so quietly as to escape notice. I know that for those who know only my blogging voice, it can seem as if I have only one string on my banjo, and care to speak of nothing except worship. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because blogging is not pastoring (though I do not cease to be one when I blog). For the wider Christian world, I would rather go to war on the front I think is most neglected: the Christian affections, and the development of right judgement about these things.

I am not naïve enough to think that worship is a neglected battleground altogether. However, what I see developing is a growing indifferentism to the battle. Some of this may be battle-weariness; some of it may be because some of the recognised names of evangelicalism, with widely divergent views on worship, have chosen to publicly partner in other causes. The message that some take from this otherwise healthy cooperation is that the worship wars do not matter, even though some of these men would not necessarily agree with that conclusion.

This urges me, as MacArthur puts it, to run to that front. And part of the lot of those who do battle on this front is to convince others that this is a real threat, and a real battle. Tough to do, when men of far greater brilliance and influence than this writer are seemingly not exercised over this. When the movers and shakers of evangelicalism don’t discuss the elephant in the room, it’s easy to dismiss people battling on the worship-front as extremists, legalists, hyper-separatists or schismatics. If the growing hegemony of the day is that the worship wars are nothing more than arguments over morally neutral preferences, you start to sound merely alarmist. If people are abandoning the battlefield in droves, you begin to appear pugnacious and belligerent.

I am heartened that I am not alone. On this particular front, apart from the writers on Religious Affections Ministries, men like Ken Myers, D.G. Hart, Paul Jones, Calvin Johansson, T. David Gordon, Ligon Duncan, Calvin Stapert, Peter Masters, and Carl Trueman  are saying some of the same things. No, we are not identical in our criticisms or applications. But we’re on the same side of the trenches, at least.

There are plenty of other battles to fight, and I praise God for the soldiers leading the charge there. I may not be a brilliant marksman, but until convinced otherwise, I’m going to add my limited firepower to the fight for ordinate affections and appropriate worship of our God .

Cheap Thrills – 8 – Concluding Thoughts

March 8, 2013

As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlour of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.

Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.

Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian defending worship. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art, he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with our mandate for worship. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art

* schematises and reduces art into an easily recognisable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.
* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.
* moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.
* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.

In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.

Here we would do well to ask ourselves several questions about worship:

1) Should worship transform the worshipper? If so, how does this occur?
2) Is worship a response to revelation, or a record of my experience?
3) How is a worshipper’s experience of God to be related to worshipping God?
4) Should a worshipper be aware of his feelings while worshipping  or does this detract from the authenticity of worship? If this awareness is needful, describe what this awareness is like.
5) How should the imagination be used in worship?

Once we’ve answered the questions regarding what kind of event worship is, and once we’ve considered how an artist has used his materials, we’re in a position to evaluate if it is appropriate in the life of a Christian. If popular art really is an exercise in narcissism, sentimentalism, and escapism, and if it dulls and flattens us, it is hard to see how much of this can be healthy for the life of a worshipping Christian.

Cheap Thrills – 7 – Escape to Never Never Land

March 1, 2013

Popular art is accused of being escapist. Kaplan agrees and disagrees. He argues that popular art seeks to escape the ugliness or troubles of this world, but it does so differently to serious art. Art may give us an idealized depiction of the world, but it seeks to transform the reality of the world. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Just as in the discussion of sentimentality, the problem may not be too much, but too little. Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It is, as Kaplan puts it, the difference between masturbation and a mature love that reaches outside the self.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

***

Here are three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Each calls us to escape. Where do we escape to, in each one? Which returns us with a deepened sense of what such anguished grief feels like? Which actually prettifies the pain?

Cheap Thrills – 4 – Mere Recognition

February 8, 2013

Kaplan argues that popular art is formless. It does not possess form in the truest sense. Form in good art, is precisely what invites true participation, creative perception, and diligent interpretation. Good form places demands on us. Its form even arouses a certain amount of fear and tension: we must embrace ambiguity and plunge in, exposing ourselves to the possibility of change. We will emerge from an encounter with good art somewhat changed, our views adjusted, our understanding broadened, our desires shaped.

Kaplan argues that this is precisely the encounter that we want to avoid, and which popular art caters to.

Instead of perception, there is mere recognition. Discrimination is cut off, as we instantly recognise the stereotype. Since we instantly recognise the materials, they are only instrumental, and without inherent value. They merely remind us of what we already know. They are cues to feel what we know we are supposed to feel. The background music in the movie uses melodious strings to signal to us that love is being born, a very different experience to experiencing a serious composer like Prokofiev. The popular art consumer shrinks from the challenge, even perceiving such a thing as a threat to be opposed.

In short, popular art is simple basically in the sense of easy. We cannot look to it for a fresh vision, or turn to it for new directions, or find unexplored meanings.

***

Which of these paintings refuses a casual or superficial inspection? Which encourage such a use? How do they do that?

Which stimulates a mere recognition, and which calls for active perception? What is it about the form of the paintings that achieves this?

The Prodigal<br /> Son by Harold Copping

Cheap Thrills – 3 – Crystallised Prejudices

February 1, 2013

The popular arts are often criticized by aesthetes for their form, or perhaps formlessness. Kaplan responds to this by directing us once again to how people use the popular arts, much like Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism.

Kaplan points out that the problem with the popular arts is not merely its standardised, simplified form. Good art can be simple, eliminating unnecessary complexity. Likewise, standardisation must be distinguished from stylisations that unite works from particular cultures, periods, schools or even individual artists. Marked resemblances do not imply a bad standardization.

Kaplan points us to the problem, and it lies within us. Popular art is not simply a recurrence of form, but in a deficiency in the first occurrence. The forms are stereotyped, not merely standardized.

What is a stereotype? It is when we are given not a true form, but merely a blueprint, an index, a digest. Since the consumer of popular art wants recognizable fare, popular art omits whatever is outside the limited horizon of what we know already. It reduces what actually is into what we would pre-judge it to be. It crystallizes our prejudices: reducing life not into a reflection of what is, but what we already believe it to be. All else is an unnecessary complication, only the dominant elements necessary to reinforce the recognizable stereotype are emphasized.

Kaplan also points out that in popular art, this schematisation means that it is essentially lacks form. Not that it is literally formless, but that its hollow schematised nature makes it a form with nothing to apply to: like a newspaper made up entirely of headlines. Popular art is pre-digested: whatever work needs to be done has already been done beforehand. The consumer of popular art has no demands placed on him. He looks only for outcomes, but is impatient with development or unfolding. He is tracing mere shapes, apprehending the work in a second-hand sense, but he is not receiving the work for itself, giving himself to understand and embrace for what it is. He is looking for what he expects to already be there. Popular art appeals to something in us. We’d do well to think what it might be.

***

With these thoughts in mind, consider these three poems, all considering the death of a believer. Read each one (preferably aloud), and then ask these questions, adapted from Professor Spiegelman (in How to Read and Understand Poetry).

1. What do I notice about this poem?
2. Does the poem demand I inspect it? Does it surprise or stretch me?
3. What new words or new images do I see? Does the language delight?
4. Why is the poem this way, and not another?
5. Do any of these poems fit Kaplan’s description of stereotyped fare? If so, how?

(I’ve omitted the authors, in the hope that we might evaluate these poems for what they are. Read ’em before you Google ’em.)

The sweetest blossoms die

The sweetest blossoms die.
And so it was that, going day by day
Unto the church to praise and pray,
And crossing the green churchyard thoughtfully,
I saw how on the graves the flowers
Shed their fresh leaves in showers,
And how their perfume rose up to the sky
Before it passed away.
The youngest blossoms die.

They die, and fall and nourish the rich earth
From which they lately had their birth;
Sweet life, but sweeter death that passeth by
And is as though it had not been:—
All colors turn to green:
The bright hues vanish, and the odours fly,
The grass hath lasting worth.
And youth and beauty die.

So be it, O my God, Thou God of truth:
Better than beauty and than youth
Are Saints and Angels, a glad company;
And Thou, O Lord, our Rest and Ease,
Are better far than these.
Why should we shrink from our full harvest? why
Prefer to glean with Ruth?

As the shadows of the night

As the shadows of the night round are falling,
I am thinking of that day by and by;
When the trumpet of the Lord shall be calling,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

Refrain:
I’ll go singing, I’ll go shouting on my journey home,
Till the day breaks, till the day breaks;
There’ll be singing, there’ll be shouting, when we all get home,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

When we gather home at last there’ll be singing,
Such as angels round the throne never heard;
For the song of souls redeemed shall go ringing,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

I shall rise to be with Jesus forever,
I shall meet the ones who passed on before;
We shall meet to part no more, never, never,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

Asleep in Jesus

Asleep in Jesus, oh, how sweet
The scene of closing day,
Where holy angels come to greet,
And bear the soul away!

Refrain:
The angels bore our loved one home
In shining garments fair;
And some bright day we hope to come
And join thee over there.

With grace divine and perfect love
Thy pilgrim days were blest,
But sweeter far thy joys above,
And more serene thy rest.

Thy prayers and tears have gone before,
Thy works shall follow on,
And gather gems forevermore,
To glitter in thy crown.

May we who knew and loved thee here
With angels bright ascend,
Thy blessed heav’nly rest to share,
When mortal life shall end.

Cheap Thrills – Pop Art and Transcendence – 1

January 18, 2013

In the land of TolerateAll, the outlaw is the realist critic. Civil order is maintained by quelling all disagreements over beauty with a few simple, and widely accepted, cultural manners. Should someone voice his view that a particular song, poem, book or other work of art is beautiful or ugly, better or worse, useful or useless, he needs to issue at least three disclaimers:

1. The critic must be quick to point out that his criticism is purely his own, and might have no relevance outside his own mind. (We are tempted to ask him why he opened his mouth and voiced his criticism to other humans, if it has no relevance to them, but we politely remain mum on this wrinkle in the logic.)
2. The critic must admit that one subjective judgement is neither truer nor better than another, for all judgements simply represent a person’s preference, or even his psychological state of mind. (We are tempted to ask him if his mother is as ugly as he is, to see if he is willing to practically apply this tolerant acceptance of all personal judgements, but we suspect he is not, and prefer discussions that end without grievous bodily harm).
3. The critic must demurely agree that those who disagree with him “have a point”, and send them away content that they have in no way been wrong in their judgements. (We are tempted to ask if one plus one can equal both two and three, to see if he understands the law of non-contradiction, but we do not. We know he is simply a law-abiding citizen.)

If this simple etiquette is adhered to, then sweet peace and good-natured harmony will prevail in TolerateAll, and the happy citizens will dwell content in the knowledge that truth, goodness and beauty are simply states of mind, except for this truth, which is absolute for all men everywhere.

Here and there, some upstarts have not learned their manners, and think truth, goodness, and beauty can be evaluated and judged, and such judgements can be true. One such upstart was Abraham Kaplan, former professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. Kaplan’s article, The Aesthetics of the Popular Arts, should be read by every Christian leader and Christian serious about restoring biblical worship. Kaplan’s article considers the popular arts from the perspective of form, evoked emotion, and effect. Kaplan gives compelling reasons for seeing pop music (or painting, verse, film, literature) as immature, stereotyped, and sentimental.

The worship battle of the day is falsely caricatured as high versus low worship, traditional versus contemporary, or hymns versus choruses. With these categories setting the direction, debate gallops off at a frightening pace, only in completely futile and fruitless directions. The battle of the day is between real art and its opposite. Whether the music or poetry comes from 1613 or 2013, whether it be an iambic hymn or a folksy ballad, whether the songs be short or long, fast or slow, ornate or simple, these are not the true matters of contention. Regardless of age, length, or relative accessibility, the question to ask in evaluating something intended for worship is, is this real art? That is, can it sustain the weight of contemplating the transcendent? Can it do justice to the depth of the tragedy of human experience, or open up vistas of thought beyond a man’s nursed prejudices? Can it provide finely nuanced expressions of human affections, honing and shaping those of the receptive? Can it take a man out of his narcissism, and confront him with reality as it is, or as it might be?

Kaplan contends that popular art, as he defines it, cannot. If he is correct, then popular art can hardly be an adequate vehicle for worship. The themes considered and pondered in worship are the weightiest and most significant in human experience. We need nothing less than serious and real art for this endeavour. If popular art trivialises the human condition, sentimentalises our own experiences, and turns profound truths into mind-numbing clichés , then popular art must be the enemy of serious worship. In this series, we will examine some of Kaplan’s thoughts, with some examples to consider.

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.

.

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.

Tozer on Worship Music: An Evaluation

September 28, 2012

We’ve gathered much of what Tozer wrote on music and hymnody. Having done so, some reflections on his writings might be helpful. I notice three outstanding features of Tozer’s approach to worship.

First, it’s clear that Tozer made an attempt to understand poetry and music. Tozer did not have to become a literary or musical critic in his office as pastor. He simply had to become competent enough to judge inferior from superior; ugly from beautiful, simple from trite. (No doubt, he read critics in this pursuit.) His criticisms seen in the quotations we’ve looked at demonstrate that Tozer did not simply tow a party-line, or reject songs for political reasons. He judged works for their meaning: for their beauty, truth and fitness for Christian devotion. His compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, is a collection of superior Christian verse. Tozer was not copy-catting another man’s taste when he put this collection together. It emerged from careful judgement of individual pieces. Remember, Tozer educated himself while cutting pieces of rubber in a factory in Akron. What’s our excuse?

Second, Tozer developed a healthy catholicity when evaluating the expressions of piety from the historic church. Tozer’s own theological leanings were baptistic, Arminian, Holiness, Keswick, with some dispensationalism thrown in. Had he wanted hymns to reflect only this slice of Christianity, his hymnbook would have been slim indeed – or made up entirely of A.B. Simpson hymns. Tozer was, thankfully, bigger than that. He understood the principle of catholic sentiment: when Christians of different ages testify similarly of their devotion. These testimonies are different, but equivalent. They represent a kind of consensus of what Christians have always felt towards God in worship. Whether it came from the Roman Catholics Bernard of Clairvaux and Frederick Faber, the pietist Tersteegen, the Lutheran Gerhardt, Anglicans Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or Presbyterian Anne Cousin, Tozer could find the catholic affections in their verse amidst the errors of their churches. And he smelt a rat when people tried to use hymnbooks as political tools to advance their own doctrinal agenda.

Third, Tozer’s writings in these matters were after one thing: fitting worship. He had no interest in aesthetic refinement divorced from worship. If Tozer could spot beauty, it was because he was after the beauty of holiness. If he called for true sentiments in the lyrics of hymnody, it was because he wanted to worship in Spirit and in truth. He raged against the trivialisation of worship not because it violated his own aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, his aesthetic sensibilities had been so trained in the service of worshipping God, and God’s name is profaned when worship is trivialised. He knew the dangers of churches that become proud of their beautiful worship and are crossless and Christless. For Tozer, truth, goodness, and beauty are not the Trinity. They are indispensable for the worship of the Trinity.

Tozer understood the dire need of the hour: restored worship. Our churches have lost worship, because they have lost judgement. Discernment has evaporated, and with it, the ability to judge what is fitting for worshipping God and what is not. In response to this worship crisis, it is important to notice what Tozer did not try to do. He did not try to restore worship by calling for resolutions at the Christian & Missionary Alliance annual meeting. He did not try to restore worship by writing a book and then touting it as the solution. He did not try to build a coalition with enough clout to enforce his views on worship. He did not set up The Christian Book of Mystical Verse as the canon for private or corporate worship. These are political solutions, solutions that are tempting only when we do not understand how sensibilities are formed or how taste develops.

Tozer got down to the hard work of discriminating between good and bad. He opened dusty books that were not popular, relevant, or endorsed by celebrities. He searched, he read, he prayed, he sang, he wrote sermons, hymns and prayers, and then he wrote down his informed judgements for others to see. In his writings, he tried to revive the conversation that true culture is, a conversation of what is fitting and right and true – with particular respect to Christian piety and worship. These approaches, to me, represent much of what we must do in this new Dark Age.

Tozer on Worship Music -12

September 21, 2012

(From the Introduction to The Christian Book of Mystical Verse)

This is a book for the worshiper rather than for the student. It has been carefully and lovingly prepared for those God-enamored persons who, while they feel as deeply as the enraptured poet, yet lack the gift that would enable them to express their feelings adequately. Such will sense a kinship with the gifted souls they find on the pages of this book and will join them as they mount on high to pour out their hymns at heaven’s gate.

In making these selections I have largely followed my own bent, though I have been guided somewhat by a few simple rules. First, all sentimental verse was excluded, along with everything homey and maudlin. The only healthy emotions are those aroused by great ideas, and even these must be restrained and purified by the Spirit of God or they will spend themselves in weak and sterile rhymes. Of such there is enough in the religious world; I think none will be found in this book.

Second, while the compiler is not unfamiliar with the judgment of hymnologists and literary critics on the larger body of English religious verse, that judgment has been set aside and another adopted for this book. For this reason some of the standard classics have been omitted because I felt they would not contribute to my purpose. Conversely, certain poems of admittedly inferior literary rank have been included because I felt that they would.

Third, everything selected for inclusion in this work had to be judged theologically sound. While considerable latitude was allowed, even welcomed, in doctrinal outlook and emphasis, to be accepted every hymn and poem had to meet the test of faithfulness to the Christian Scriptures. Though almost everything here is pure lyric poetry and may easily be sung, yet this book is not intended for use in the public assembly. Had I meant it to be so used a wholly different kind of verse would have been chosen for it and the book would have been another sort of book altogether. Everything here is for use in private devotion. I have had in mind not a congregation but the lone individual. For this reason I would respectfully urge the one who may come into possession of this book not to “read” it as he would read another book. Let him try rather to enter into its mood, to capture and be captured by its spirit. How many pages he gets through in a day is of no importance; what one poem or even one single stanza does to him and for him and in him: that is everything.

Admittedly much pure gold has been left out of this treasury. The chief reason is lack of space. I have tried to keep the book small enough to be portable, that its possessor may carry it with him and so turn any bus or train or airplane into a sanctuary. Certainly not all the gold in the world is in this one volume, but what is here is, I believe, true gold of Ophir. I hope many of my fellow Christians will find it to be so.

—The Christian Book of Mystical Verse