Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Whether across their kitchen counters or board meeting tables or smartphone screens we are giving people plenty of reason to conclude that religion is a grand failed experiment; a nice, lofty theoretical exercise that falls apart in the practice of actually living. So it isn’t the Church or Jesus that they’re objecting to, it’s you and it’s me. – John Pavlovitz, “Christian The Reason So Many People Are Losing Faith – May Be You”, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, February 8, 2016
I usually don’t reply to these articles but I am tired of folks blaming Christians and leaders for losing their faith. Nothing or no one will stand between me and my Jesus. There is no excuse for losing your faith. – Comment on FB, referring to the above-linked article
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
In our ongoing quest to destroy ourselves as a denomination, an enormous part of the problem is the simple refusal to stop, take a moment, and look at our churches from the outside. What do we see? We see mostly older congregations using thirty-year-old books from which we sing 200-year old hymns before listening to a middle-aged man or woman lecture us about what the Bible says. Then right after that they ask for money. Before all that, the few children are invited forward for a simple lesson before being chased out of the sanctuary either for Sunday School or “Junior Church”. This happens each and every Sunday.
The rest of the time, when this endless unexplained ritual isn’t happening, people in the church are either calling people in their local communities names, sitting and clicking their tongues at one or another younger family that might venture in some Sunday; or, they are yelling at one another, whether it’s about money – it is quite frequently about money – or how the pastor’s wife dresses (when I was growing up, the SPRC in my home church actually met because people were complaining that the pastor’s wife wore pantsuits to church instead of dresses; really, I am not making this up) or writing letters to the editor of the local paper complaining about Harry Potter books or gays in the military or how this or that or the other local, state, or national politician is the Anti-Christ.
Those words about which the pastor talks on Sunday? They’re all about love and forgiveness and being willing to sacrifice for others, to give to others until there’s nothing left of one’s self to give. We are told not to judge others. We are told that Jesus fed thousands from a couple fish and a few loaves of bread, yet we wonder how we’re going to keep the lights on because giving is down. So there’s more talk about money, more talk to fewer people who are asked to give more and resent it. “Why is it all they talk about is money?” people outside will say.
This isn’t a caricature, by any means. This is reality not just for the United Methodist Church, but for all denominations (and I’m going to guess some synagogues and mosques, too). People outside our walls look at us and wonder why in the world they should expend emotional energy and family time joining ever older and ever smaller groups of people who seem to find their only satisfaction arguing over one another and complaining about how no one comes to church. All that stuff in the Bible about loving others, about serving others, about being the church rather than going to church sounds like a bunch of nonsense, a long con to separate people from their money to keep open an old building that does fewer and fewer things for fewer and fewer people. People have better things to do with their time, their energy, and their money. As for faith, well, I’m sure there are a lot of folks not in any sanctuary on a given Sunday morning who might wish to believe. The fact of the matter, however, is that “church” as it is actually lived doesn’t resemble what “Christians” say it does. There’s no service or sacrifice for others; the Trustees don’t want the church doors unlocked during the week to help warm the homeless, because someone might steal something – a thing that can be replaced! There’s no multiplying of meager scraps into a bounty that serves many; penny-pinching and whining, refusing to invest in mission or evangelism because they aren’t “priorities” – people know the church is there, after all, and when worship is scheduled! – leaves the hungry unfed, the naked unclothed, the lonely unvisited. We in the United Methodist Church declare our doors and hearts are open; when a local family who hasn’t attended in a while gets withering stares, or a new couple joins and few if any people greet them with smiles and handshakes, there seems little to no reason for them to return.
Let’s face it: We are our own worst enemies. Even worse, however, is we refuse to acknowledge these realities. We refuse to take responsibility for how badly we’ve damaged how others see the church through our words and deeds. We declare “there is no excuse” for others to lose faith, yet have no idea how that is exactly the attitude that turns people away Sunday after Sunday. We do not repent for our sins, spending far more time looking out at the world and telling it it has to repent before being worthy of our time or engagement. When we ask for forgiveness, we rarely think about how our actions reinforce a view of “church” as a place where older people get together to sing old songs and hear boring sermons on the same topics, all the while demanding money and complaining about all the folks who just don’t come anymore.
There are a lot of other reasons our churches are struggling. We need to realize just how much we contribute to that struggle through our many faults and failures.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (emphasis added)
The past two-and-a-half years have been an interesting study in human interaction. Not long after the announcement that Lisa was being appointed Superintendent of the Rockford District, back in 2013, there was a special session of the Northern Illinois Conference to consider a particular plan through which the Conference would help churches laden with mortgage debt. As a member of the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, I not only attended but was given voting privileges (for the first time! It was very exciting). As I wandered through Elgin First UMC, my name badge on, people would glance my way then do a double-take. Not everyone, of course, but more than a few. When they saw my last name, they would approach me, introduce themselves, shake my hand and invariably say, “You must be Lisa’s husband.” On our way home that afternoon, Lisa and were talking and she said, “It was weird. All these people came up to me and were talking to me.” I chuckled and said, “It’s because of your appointment. Hell, people were sucking up to me because I’m your husband.”
I suppose it’s part of the process of socialization that we learn to approach persons with power or authority, introduce ourselves to them, perhaps only to be known by them, perhaps seeking some favor, perhaps both. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. Lord knows I’ve done it, although I do hope I’m better than I used to be. Who wouldn’t want to be known by those who might well have some kind of influence on our lives? How better to get them to be aware of the people their word and actions might touch?
Still, being on the receiving end of this behavior was distinctly odd, to say the least. It still is. That Lisa is the District Superintendent is true enough. It doesn’t change the person I am. It does, however, change how people perceive me and choose to interact with me (with the exception of the people of Christ The Carpenter UMC; thank God for them and their openness and love and insouciance toward names or titles). I have had to keep reminding myself of this often. I am just me, no big deal. All the same, to some just the fact that I’m married to a person holding a particular office of authority in our denomination makes me a big deal. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around that, at least not all the way.
You see, St. Paul reminds us that none of us are a big deal. As much as we might enjoy parading our advance degrees around – and you can’t be ordained clergy in the UMC without at least an advanced professional degree – and showing off how much Greek and Hebrew we know; as much as we might enjoy being looked upon as particularly special people (having been a clergy spouse in a couple small towns, I will tell you that everyone knows who you are, whether you are aware of it or not); as much as emphasize having been called out from among the rest of the Body (and being a clergy spouse is a calling); for all this, St. Paul reminds us we were called out precisely because we aren’t all that wise. We certainly aren’t all that powerful; besides United Methodists, and probably not a majority of those, who cares about our General Conference, what difference does it make to anyone? We have been called out not because we have special gifts, are oh-so-smart or powerful. I don’t care if you’re a Bishop, the Chair of the General Conference, the head of one of our global Boards, or just a local pastor or deacon in service: you’re where you are because you’re not that big a deal.
So you have a piece of paper that says you read some books and wrote some papers. Do you honestly believe that’s going to get you a free cup of coffee anywhere? Does seminary education really matter all that much? So you stand in front of a congregation every Sunday, lead Bible Studies and classes, and your sanctuary is filled with people and your mission and outreach continues to grow. Do you really think any of that has to do with you? So people in different conferences and in other parts of the denomination know your name, you get mentioned in the United Methodist Reporter or are interviewed on local or even national news. Does that mean you don’t fart after a really good meal? Do any of these things eliminate your need to confess your sins together with other Christians? Does an education or a piece of paper or a special title before your name mean you aren’t in need of the means of grace of the Sacrament to bring you together with the Body of Christ? Does the fact that you might have written a book that a whole lot of people read, perhaps study and share in their local congregations grant you wisdom or courage for the facing of this hour?
As difficult as it is, each of us and all of us need to remember that God has called us not because of who we are or because of some special gift we have; God has called us to serve God, to be builders of the Kingdom, tenders of God’s garden. No one is supposed to see us or hear us. Who we are is inconsequential. All we do, all we are, is for the glory of God. Period. Full stop.
We are just too wed to our special status, whether as baptized Christians in service or ordained as clergy or consecrated as Bishop, to recall that not a bit of it has anything to do with any of us, either individually or as the Church. We are called to be the Body of Christ, not the Body of the educated, the movers and shakers, the special people. St. Paul reminds the people of Corinth they just aren’t that big a deal, which is precisely why God called them. I think we, particularly in the United Methodist Church, not only have forgotten this; we celebrate our special status. People in positions of power and authority seek to remain in positions of power and authority, rather than remember our power comes from weakness, our authority from the Spirit of God, not from some book we read or some title in front of our name. We need to stop regarding ourselves as all that, because we’re not. We are those who were not, created by God to show forth the Glory of God to the world.
That is who and what we are. Nothing before God called us in to being to serve God, God’s Kingdom, and the living of the Gospel.
Popular music has recently lost four important figures, each leaving differing legacies. Surely no one will argue that both Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie will continue to influence everything from rock star attitude to musical and persona presentation for decades to come. Both leave vast libraries of music that will be mined for ideas, perhaps even riffs to quote, as rock continues its mostly underground existence. While not a fan of The Eagles or Glenn Frey, it’s hard to argue they weren’t an important part of how music evolved through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Then yesterday came news that Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner had died at the age of 74.
I have to say that of the four, I think Kantner’s death had the biggest impact on me. Because, you see, I started listening to Jefferson Airplane in high school. While I certainly heard The Eagles at that time, I was far more attracted to the music the Airplane produced. A group of strong personalities and varying musical styles never quite reached the point of creating “a” sound, except perhaps for the vocal harmonies of Kantner, co-founder Marty Balin, and Grace Slick. They were not only unconventional (in much the way Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s vocal harmonies were unconventional) but Balin’s thin tenor seemed to go so well with Slick’s powerful alto while Kantner could lead or fall in, adding a different texture. Whether playing a straight ahead blues-inspired rocker written and led by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen or one of their more adventurous songs inspired by psychedelics, however, the music never failed to be different than you would expect.
This was not “pop” in the least. Despite the popularity of their songs “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, this wasn’t a group that would churn out hits. I think what I appreciated when I was younger was that this was a group of adults making music for adults. Young adults, sure, but there was nothing teeny-bopper about them at all. There was a seriousness about their song writing and arranging that I found very appealing; these folks weren’t fooling around. I think that’s true enough of the other San Francisco bands like Santana, The Grateful Dead, and Canned Heat. This was a musical atmosphere where people both had fun, yet didn’t shy away from taking their music seriously enough to create something new and interesting. And I must admit both their “Fuck you” attitude – Volunteers is one great big middle finger to the rising conservatism in California and America – and the simple attraction of Grace Slick were also a big part of why I liked the band. What teenager doesn’t like a bit of rebellion with sexiness?
So, thank you, Paul Kantner for walking up to a stranger (Marty Balin) and asking him if he wanted to form a band. Thank you for wanting to do more than three-minute love songs, or at least traditional three minute love songs. Thank you for being serious even while having a great time. Thank you for making rock something for adults. I know that last is heresy; it’s supposed to be music for teens, both early and late. It’s supposed to be unserious and fun. It’s supposed to be done with insouciance toward the details of production and arrangement – if it has a good beat and can dance to it, that’s supposed to be enough. The Jefferson Airplane produced revolutionary music for the mind, for the ear, and for a different audience than most groups at the time.
Could we, too, not want to be held accountable for the things we have said that may have, in retrospect, been unwise or even profoundly un-kingdom of God-like?
Could repentance, the key to a life of grace-filled and healing love, also escape us? – Rev. Christy Thomas, “‘Trumpian’ or Christian?”, The Thoughtful Pastor, January 28, 2016
We cannot escape the toxins of our society, as much as we might wish to do so. And this is, indeed, a “pox upon all our houses” omment, because I am well aware of my own failures in this regard; confession and repentance begin with our willingness to say, “I have failed my sisters and brothers through my words and actions.” Would General Conference begin with a service of confession and repentance, one honest and heartfelt – perhaps with a collective covenant renewal – it might yet be possible to salvage something from the wreckage. I fear, however, the answer to Charles Wesley’s “And Are We Yet Alive?” is, “Yes, but it really isn’t a life worthy of the God who has saved us.” – Me, comment on “‘Trumpian’ or Christian?”, The Thoughtful Pastor, January 28, 2016
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. – A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition, traditionally part of New Year’s Eve Watch Night Services
I’ve backed quite a ways away from controversies in the United Methodist Church. It seems no good comes from stating one’s views, or criticizing those of others, beyond mutual rancor, recrimination, and the inevitable nonsense of who is the worst Christian ever. It serves no good end. I, for one, have nothing invested in being correct or orthodox or socially or theologically or politically correct, because I believe none of us are (I’m one of those old-fashioned Christians who believes in original sin). As I am no one of consequence, it seems there is no need to be seen as a controversialist.
My love for the United Methodist Church runs deep. Its history and heritage, the special Wesleyan emphases on personal and social holiness, on an engaged and evangelical Body of Christ, and the practice of mutual accountability in our lives of faith are both worthy of admiration and offer the universal church so much. These are the things that keep me anchored in a denomination that nevertheless breaks my heart on a pretty regular basis as I watch so many prefer to be right rather than faithful; as I see the poisonous public sphere invade my beloved Church, creating factions and making faithful Christian Conferencing ever more difficult; as I hear accusations of heresy and apostasy bounce around like dodge balls in a junior high gym, seeing how many people can get knocked out of a conversation until only those one favors are left. Worst of all, I see and hear far too little of the work of the faith in our local communities and places around the world as our increasingly limited resources of money and energy are diverted to matters only peripherally related to the primary work of the Church, spreading the Good News of New Life and New Creation in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
This year our denomination meets for its quadrennial world-wide General Conference. For two weeks in May, Portland, OR will be flooded by over 900 delegates and thousands of visitors, pages, lobbying groups, protesters, and press, waiting and watching while, by and large, the gathering argues over procedural details and various factions try to use arcane parliamentary rules to stop others either from discussing matters of real import, or force upon the whole body agenda items of limited worth. This, at least, was the goings-on at our last General Conference, in Tampa, FL in 2012. This year holds the possibility of being far worse, bearing nothing of the stamp of those who may very well have stated the words of the Covenant Prayer above yet decided that governing part of the Body of Christ is too important to be left up to the meek and poor in Spirit.
My hope for General Conference is simple: That the life-giving and renewing Spirit may yet blow upon Portland, lighting upon those present so they may yet place the good of our whole Church, our witness, and our identity as The People Called Methodist above their own personal views. My fear, and the source of much despair, is that in fact the air has already been infected far too much for any cure to save. The realities of the desire for power’s retention, to be correct rather than faithful (believing that in the former lies the latter), and the disappearance of humility all point to a meeting that will, at the very least, weaken further an already teetering structure. It way well be the work of building the Kingdom of God goes on without our unique and important practices, our history of the pursuit of holiness in our selves, our congregations, and our world. Few things would sadden me more than this.
Right now, I think the only proper answer to Charles Wesley’s hymned question is the one I gave in the comment quoted above. The truth is we aren’t worthy of the work to which God has called us. For this we should repent before we do anything else.
And I just don’t see that happening.
Much time, energy, and emotion is expended in mainline and evangelical church circles over what is known as The Worship Wars. Challenges to traditional hymnody and styles of worship have been ongoing for more than a generation now, yet the conflict continues precisely because, as I noted yesterday, there is still much emotional baggage attached to the old hymns churches have been singing for generations. Much of the discussion surrounding matters of worship styles and music rests firmly within those binary categories about which I wrote yesterday: the sacred and profane. Categorical statements about the organ being the preferred instrument for Christian worship, and traditional hymns the only proper songs to be sung.
Visit a historically African-American Church, however, and you will see little to no evidence of the worship wars. Carrying their own tradition of home-grown worship and their own history of hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of denominational label, more than likely a visitor will hear “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” alongside a Gospel song like Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is The Answer” or The Winans’ “Everything You Touch Is A Song”. Piano is often accompanied by a drum, perhaps other instrumentation as well. There is little to no fuss about what is and is not proper, not because the African-American churches are immune to the sacred-profane dichotomy; rather, as Wynton Marsalis has said, to be black in America necessitates improvisation. In order to survive in a hostile legal, social, and cultural environment, African-Americans have had to make it up as they go along, to use what was at hand or to create their own ways of doing things because so much of what passed for “religion” in America spoke only to white America.
All the Sturm-und-Drang over worship in our white churches could be avoided if we looked to our African-American sisters and brothers. Their rules for what is and what is not sacred largely hinge upon what is and is not useful. Even in traditionally black denominations such as The Church of Christ, in which no instruments are allowed, hymns and spirituals are still sung, sometimes lined by the pastor, sometimes in a call and response style. Each tradition has adapted to its environment in order to serve the needs of the people without surrendering theological or musical integrity. Rather than adhere to a rigid ideology of sacred/profane, black churches, by forcing constantly to adapt have become comfortable with the variety that is their worship and musical environment.
Which is not to say that historically African-American churches are immune either to the consumerist ideology of our capitalist society or the sacred/profane split. On the contrary, Gospel music is a multi-million dollar music, making stars of its performers who become little different from “secular” performers. Many African-American secular performers, from Sam Cooke through Whitney Houston to Snoop Dogg grew up singing in their church choirs. Some, like Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin, began their professional careers singing Gospel music. When they made the switch away from gospel to soul and rhythm and blues, it caused more than a little controversy. The sacred/profane line was as less about commercial or stylistic questions – so much of soul music is embedded within the history of the Gospel music, thanks in no small part to Ray Charles turning popular Gospel tunes in to popular song by changing the lyrics – than it was what they were singing about. Many African-American singers and performers have included recordings of Gospel or sacred music in their repertoire, much as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded music from their Pentecostal childhoods.
By and large, however, we could learn so much by listening to and talking with historically black churches and how they have continued to adapt music and worship within changing historical circumstances yet always against the background of white supremacy. We could do far worse than to silence our categorical demands and learn that even here and now in our midst is evidence that what we white mainline and evangelical Protestants insist is timeless and true is nothing but our own blinkered preferences gussied up for God.
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. – Matthew 27:50-51a
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-39
Few things are as threatening as freedom. While most of us, particularly here in the United States, treat freedom not just as a political right but a sacred right conferred upon us by God, real freedom frightens us no end. Most of us would far rather huddle with the familiar than expose ourselves to the unfamiliar; nothing is more terrifying than seeing the endless possibilities that lie before us and realizing it’s up to us what we do with them.
We in the Christian churches in particular are cowards when it comes to the reality of the freedom that is ours in and through Christ. Oh, we talk about it a whole lot. Usually, however, it’s a “freedom” to be jerks to other people. As St. Paul noted in Galatians, the best thing about Christian freedom is the opportunity to serve others. That paradox confuses so many outside the Church; on the one hand, we’re free – really free for freedom’s sake – while on the other hand we are to be servants to all. Most of the time this opportunity becomes a new Law, usually linked to those verses in Galatians that talk about sinful actions, lists of “Thou shalt not”‘s that replace the Ten Commandments. Rather than viewing the Christian life as an opportunity to live without enmity, to live without being slaves to physical pleasure, without being slaves to the envy of others we fall in to the very trap St. Paul about which St. Paul warns the Galatians.
Because freedom is terrifying.
In St. Matthews telling of the crucifixion, the moment Jesus dies the veil in the Temple – that which separated the Holy of Holies, the Throne of God, from the rest of the world – tears from top to bottom. God, like Elvis, has left the building. With the resurrection of Christ, the Holy of Holies now resides with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The old binaries, set out by St. Paul so clearly in his Epistle to the Galatians, no longer mean anything because, now living in and through the Risen Christ in the power of the Spirit we are free from that separation from God evidenced in all the sinful divisions that exist in our fallen but now healing world.
Far too many of us, however, are terrified of that torn curtain. We want the sacred to be something set apart. We would rather live with those binaries that separate “us” from “them”. Thus it is we talk about the saved and the reprobate. We call some people doctrinally pure while others are heretics. We believe it is up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff; we further believe that chaff is other people. Just that we live this way, act this way, teach and preach this way demonstrates we are terrified of the freedom we have in Christ Jesus – freedom for the sake of real freedom in service to others.
Holy ground? It’s all around us. God is even now redeeming the land and the sea and the sky. Our churches and pulpits are no more special to God than our living rooms, locker rooms, or the forest floor. All of it, in and through the crucified and risen Christ is being redeemed, transformed, made new.
So why do we continue with the sacred/profane binary? Why pretend that differences with which we invest so much meaning, so much emotional energy, even sacred worth, are in fact not at all sacred? In fact, what if insisting on binaries – good/evil, beautiful/ugly, sacred/profane – is just another sign we aren’t being faithful enough?
If we truly are saved by faith through grace, why do we make of opportunities for free living new commandments? Why do we condemn some for “sinful” living when we have not first checked our own eye for that beam that may be anger or envy or lust? Why so much energy spent on creating “others” against whom we can measure everything from our own virtue to our righteousness? The Christian life isn’t a zero-sum game, with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. The Christian life is one of freedom. Not just freedom from slavery to sin and death, but freedom truly to live for others for no other reason than we love them because they are God’s children. For some reason, we Christians continue to believe only we have that restored image of God, rather than hearing in the words of St. Paul and St. Matthew reminders that all Creation if God’s beloved child. All Creation is being transformed. Our job as Christians is not to judge the world; that’s God’s job and was taken care of. Our job is to love all that is, to be the love of God for the world.
That’s why I think so much of our talk in our churches is so broken. We have taken the gift of Christian freedom and traded it for a mess of pottage. We would rather rest in some false sense of security rather than risk the freedom that is ours, showing the world what is possible in and through the Spirit because of the risen Son. We are free for the sake of true freedom, to live for and love others just because they are, because they are God’s creation, beloved just as they are. Rather than be so hung up on sin, how about we in the churches start being hung up on love and joy and peace?
Those are some of the fruits of the Spirit. Not all this Us-versus-Them crap.
Live free. I dare you.
Music is a way to order chaos. – Me, “Sermon Thoughts I”, What’s Left In The Church, May 16, 2010
If you read any book on music – and I’ve read dozens over the past few years – the first thing you’ll encounter is a definition of music as “organized sound”. Unpacking those two words lead to things like rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and so on. The thing is, for me, sound can be chaotic. I know there are musicians who hear harmonies and rhythms and even melodies when standing and listening to the world around them. From the sounds of vehicles on roads through birds singing and dogs barking to the rustle of branches and leaves in the breeze, there are people who take this mass of sound and find something more there. For the most part, however, such sounds are just noise.
Before there were things like musical notation or theories of harmony there was music. Music is as ubiquitous as human societies, older than the first settled human communities, and as varied as the places and people who create them. As necessary to human existence as food and shelter, music organizes the chaos of life, whether recalling a community’s founding in song or in singing divine blessings upon a couple getting married, music recognizes the chaos that is the most basic threat to our existence and demands it submit to our order. It frames and shapes and directs human action, calling forth divine participation when necessary, and subsumes both our joys and fears under its insistent demand for order. More than speech, more than any other human action, music encompasses all over activities and creates a whole that is larger than any particular parts.
We in the west, at least since the beginnings of the capitalist era, have relegated all art to the periphery of life. Focusing the proletariat’s attention on the need for survival (and Lord someone could do a whole book on the survival ethic in modernity), thinkers beginning with Immanuel Kant have insisted that art is a nonessential part of the human common life. These ass-kissers of the rising bourgeoisie insisted that it is possible to life an entire human life without concerning oneself with beauty. For over two hundred years, art and beauty – and particularly music – has been taught as if it were not an integral part of human life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we are all raised to believe we can take it or leave it when it comes to art. Artists are viewed as odd, strange, outsiders; their products are either risible or dangerous but in either case they have nothing to do with everyday life. There are many out there who have been taught this so well, they actually live without painting or sculpture, music or architecture as part of their concerns in life.
A quick survey of the world outside the West, however, a world still resisting the hegemony of our ideology dehumanizing not only humanity, but that which humanity produces, can only lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. Life is more than survival; a lived life includes not only the consideration of but the active participation in what we in the West call “the arts”; whether in the weaving of cloth and the sewing of garments, the construction of buildings both for use and appreciation, or the representation of the world in the plastic arts – all accompanied by music – that which we relegate to “the arts” and the periphery of existence is at the heart of day-to-day life. Even a glance back at our own history, or at our own social practices teaches us the human need for music to mark our most important activities. Whether it’s worshiping God, heavy-beat dance music in clubs for people to seduce one another, or a funeral Mass, all of it happens precisely because music is present. The lies of our educators, at least on this point, is offered up in our everyday life.
Christian theology roots itself in our particular profession of faith, that Creation began with God speaking the words, “Let There Be Light!” Yet the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with song declaring God’s glory! Psalm 8 is nothing more than a sung Creation story. The prophets offer words from the LORD to be set to music. The angels declare the birth of the Christ child in song. No, it seems to me that, when God decided to put the primordial chaos at bay through the act of Creation, those words weren’t spoken. I believe there was a whole musical score that accompanied it all.