And how can we certainly distinguish between our dreams and our waking thoughts What criterion is there by which we may surely know whether we are awake or asleep It is true, as soon as we awake out of sleep, we know we have been in a dream, and are now awake. But how shall we know that a dream is such while we continue therein What is a dream To give a gross and superficial, not a philosophical, account of it: It is a series of persons and things presented to our mind in sleep, which have no being but in our own imagination. A dream, therefore, is a kind of digression from our real life. It seems to be a sort of echo of what was said or done a little when we were awake. Or, may we say, a dream is a fragment of life, broken off at both ends; not connected either with the part that goes before, or with that which follows after And is there any better way of distinguishing our dreams from our waking thoughts, than by this very circumstance It is a kind of parenthesis, inserted in life, as that is in a discourse, which goes on equally well either with it or without it. By this then we may infallibly know a dream, — by its being broken off at both ends; by its having no proper connection with the real things which either precede or follow it. – John Wesley, “Human Life A Dream”, Sermon 121, August, 1789
Back when I was in high school, there was a day that began as every day began. Despite my alarm going off, my father came in and woke me up. I tossed the covers aside, pulled my bathrobe on, pulled the slippers on my feet, and wandered downstairs. From 6:30 until 7:00 a.m. every day I practiced the piano. I sat at the piano and began running scales. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father open the door to the bottom of the stairs and call for me. I said, “But, Dad. I’m right here, practicing.” Clear as day, I hear him say – up the stairs, rather than looking at me – “No, you’re not.” It was at that moment that I awoke and realized I had actually dreamed myself in to my day in a way so vivid, so clear, so ordinary that I could not tell the difference between what I was dreaming and what was real. For now we’ll skip the horrid dream I had once of my father leaning over me to wake me, and I dreamed it a monster come to eat me and I took a swing at him and punched my father in the jaw.
I went through a period in my early 20’s when I had horrible nightmares. I would awake screaming. My brain is wired in such a way that I remember all these dreams, even the emotions of terror I experienced, usually associated with a place I refused to go yet was dragged without my consent. Except, of course, for the worst one: I was sitting in the Theater down in Sayre, PA watching a movie. My best childhood friend, who had committed suicide six months earlier, was sitting about four or so rows in front of me. I recognized him and called out to him. He stood and smiled a devilish grin at me. Then, as I watched, he began to laugh this horrible laugh, filled with fear – terror, even – and his skin and muscle melted away, leaving a rotten, half-naked skeleton standing in front of me, still laughing that horrible laugh that was little different than a scream of fear, his arm rising, a bony finger pointing at me. I awoke screaming, and the poor teenage boys in the cabin where I was their counselor awoke thinking I had hurt myself.
Suffice it so say dreams are odd things. I was surprised to see this title among Wesley’s sermons, which is, really, the only reason I read it. What I discovered is an odd combination of a pretty sophisticated eschatologically-based theological psychology and a kind of Platonism in which Wesley would seem to insist that what is “real” is in fact that which is not, nor cannot, be seen. It is at death that we realize, if such a word applies to that which Wesley calls “spirits”, what is and is not important. It seems that only the dead can and do know the more essential truths of our lives. When those sleepers awake, whether it is to be carried to the bosom of Abraham (yes, he uses the metaphor) or to the deepest pit of suffering where the dead rage against God and humanity, against life and death. Most of all they rage against those who have managed to escape the eternal torment that is theirs for not heeding Jesus’s words, “Your very soul is required of you this night!”
Wesley speaks at length upon what was both the common and more sophisticated notions of death and follows, including this odd Platonism, before turning to “religion”, specifically what he calls “Scriptural religion”:
What an admirable foundation for thus associating the ideas of time and eternity, of the visible and invisible world, is laid in the very nature of religion! For, what is religion, — I mean scriptural religion for all other is the vainest of all dreams. What is the very root of this religion It is Immanuel, God with us! God in man! Heaven connected with earth! The unspeakable union of mortal with immortal. For “truly our fellowship” (may all Christians say) “is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. God hath given unto us eternal life; and this life is in his Son.” What follows “He that hath the Son hath life: And he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
But how shall we retain a constant sense of this I have often thought, in my waking hours, “Now, when I fall asleep, and see such and such things, I will remember it was but a dream.” Yet I could not, while the dream lasted; and probably none else can. But it is otherwise with the dream of life; which we do remember to be such, even while it lasts. And if we do forget it, (as we are indeed apt to do,) a friend may remind us of it. It is much to be wished that such a friend were always near; one that would frequently sound in our ear, “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead!” Soon you will awake into real life. You will stand, a naked spirit, in the world of spirits, before the face of the great God! See that you now hold fast that “eternal life, which he hath given you in his Son!”
The question for me is simple: What do we do with this sermon? My first instinct is to toss the Platonism, in particular, over the side as so much Oxonian baggage. This world, for all its cares and woes, its joys and sublime moments, is all too real. It is, indeed, the world to which God came in the Person of the Son, not to condemn but to save it. Yet, the idea that this life is nothing but a dream isn’t restricted to Platonism. It is a central tenet of Buddhism: That this life is not real, and true enlightenment comes, perhaps after many incarnations, when we not only understand this Truth but live it, with compassion for those still trapped in the dream of this life, suffering needlessly. It is not enough to dismiss what some would call “Platonism” or “escahtologically-based theological psychology” so easily.
Wesley makes the jump from ordinary considerations to the Incarnation, Salvation, and Sanctification as a way to wrestle with that which he has previously described. That is to say, those of us who live as Christians can become so forgetful of what is to come, far too mindful of this life’s cares and pleasures, that we forget that it is like a dream that passes. As Christians, ours is a life caught in and with the crucified and risen Savior. In company of like-minded persons, we can resist the temptations of this life that passes, and focus our hearts and minds on who and whose we are, singing with the angels before the throne, “Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth!”
We cannot forget our duties to holiness of heart and life, to attend upon the ordinances of God, to worship and prayerful study of the Scriptures. These are the things in this life that keep us aware that, for all its “reality”, it is that which passes, while the love we have from God in Jesus Christ through the Spirit that brings us, together, life in this world yet not of this world shall never end. The “dream” of this life is, indeed, that to which we are called, without ever forgetting that, now risen with Christ through baptism, we stand naked before the Throne of God. Both realities are significant. Both are “true” in the sense they determine how we are to live. We are to live within this tension, this not-yet-fully-realized eschatology of our personal judgment before God on the one hand, and the life we are called to live together with others here in this world.
Dreams are funny things. Sometimes we go for days, even weeks, never remembering what our brains have been doing while we sleep. Others, including me, have what are called “lucid dreams”, in which we are aware we dreaming, exerting at least a bit of control over what happens. Finally, we shall all be like the children of Israel, who when they heard they were returning to Jerusalem and the Land given them by the LORD, said together, “We were like those who dream.” What is, is. What will be may well be more wonderful, more powerful, more real than the deepest dream from which we awakened wondering at its power.
Sing to him a new song;
play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts. – Psalm 33:3
O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth. – Psalm 96:1
[A]nd they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. – Revelation 14:3
Perhaps this belongs at Reflections On, at least the part about reading Adorno. At the same time, why I’m reading Adorno, what I’m learning by reading Adorno, and my reasons for starting a new site, and this site in particular, are linked far more closely than simple reflections on reading. Rather than split these things up, I thought it best to include it here. Of late I have become a bit too single-minded in writing about the United Methodist Church and our current struggles. This single-mindedness, along with my current weakened state of mind due to chronic depression, has limited my ability to do more than one thing at a time. I do wish to continue to engage my fellow United Methodists as we move toward what we all hope is a resolution to our current state of disarray. At the same time, this particular site, and its title, were created with a purpose in mind. To whit: I wanted to explore the theological, doxological, and liturgical possibilities of one of my pet projects, which is knocking down the wall between what we call sacred and what we call secular music. To that end, last Christmas I asked for and received several books on church music, two books on music and theology, a book exploring the theological depth of hip-hop, and two books by Theodor Adorno on music. More than all the others, it was Adorno with whom I wanted to wrestle the most precisely because of the depth of his thought as well as his love for and knowledge of music. What I have learned along the way, and how it might impact what I do and how I think about it and write about it going forward in no small part will be influenced by Adorno. So let’s begin with him.
II. Reading Adorno
Before the substance of Adorno’s work can be tackled with any understanding, a few words on reading his prose need to be said. In his long Introductory essay, Richard Leppert makes it clear that Adorno’s style was purposely not easy. While certainly not as nearly-indecipherable as Immanuel Kant or Martin Heidegger, Adorno nevertheless suffered from what I have come to think of as “Teutonicitis”. German is a language that lends itself to complex constructions, the long sentences with confusing directions, and paragraphs that can go on for pages. While also an aficionado of the epigrammatic style – used in both The Dialectic of Enlghtenment and Minima Moralia – these essay by and large rest more comfortably with the complications due in no small part to the grammatical and structural rules of German. At the same time, like his friend Ernst Bloch, there is a rhythm to the writing, a stylistic uniqueness with which the reader becomes familiar.
Which is not to say that one can peruse Adorno. On the contrary, despite stylistic specificity, Adorno sometimes is at great pains to strip the materialistic from his subject matter, leaving what should be concrete abstract, while conretizing the abstract through a stray example or reference to a piece of music, a passage, or whatnot. That these are always unexpected, they definitely demonstrate his dialectical style of thinking, working from opposites inward toward a center that can never be found. The reader needs to pay attention to each phrase, each sentence, sometimes this or that word, how they all fit together to make the whole that is and never can be quite whole. This openness, this sense of incompleteness, is as much a conscious part of Adorno’s style as everything else, reflecting his own determination that “the whole”, particularly the whole as described by Hegelian dialectics, is false. What Adorno called “negative dialectics” is only Hegel without a final synthesis. Thus, the opposites, sometimes appearing simultaneously, seeming to move toward one another, yet never quite getting there.
III. The Limits Of Adorno
While I am grateful for the gift of these works, and am actually enjoying each essay as I read them, one each day, I have come to learn, fairly quickly, that what Adorno has to say about music is both narrow and impossible to transfer – save for generalizations about its historical embededness and the limits of transcendence and the commodification forced upon all production through what Adorno would call the Culture Industry (CI) – to other styles. Precisely because Adorno is wedded both to a particular style of music, viewing the avante garde of the early 20th century both as revolutionary and the epitome of “the next phase” of modernist composition, there is little room to take what he has to say about compositional techniques, about music as art, and even about the growth and decay of music qua music and transfer it to other settings. In this sense his work is as much a product both of his history and the times in which he lived as his method is to embed all human life within a historical framework. It would do violence to the truth for which he struggled so hard and so long to rip out of context Adorno’s approach to music, applying it to a completely different historical, social, and cultural locus.
Which is not to say I have not learned much that is useful. On the contrary, Adorno’s view of music, his commitment to music both as art and as the most fully human expression both of beauty and truth precisely because it is the most historical of the arts, I find not only uplifting but agreeable. It is important to remember that, even as he dismisses popular music, jazz, and even some classical music (he is dismissive, for example, of Rachmaninov), he does so for clearly stated reasons. In true dialectical fashion, I on the other hand stand with Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk (who said “There are no wrong notes.”), and even Ozzy Osbourne, refusing to adhere to labels, and insist there really are only two kinds of music – good and bad. What constitutes these aesthetic decisions are both objective and subjective, in need precisely of a dialectical analysis that is also beholden to musicological understandings that consider the sounds themselves, as British musicologist Allan F. Moore has written. A strict adherence to such a principle – seeing stylistic, timbral, functional, and even temporal differences as more those of degree than of kind – takes a great deal both to defend and explain. Through reading Adorno, I am learning how to do this in a way that is both thorough and uncompromising, although my position is exactly the opposite of his.
IV. This Site
When I started this blag back in April, I did so for several reasons. Just beginning a journey out of a near-suicidal depression, I knew that writing is therapeutic. My old site had become, well, old. I decided that if I was going to start again, I needed to start fresh. A new platform, a new name, a new set of rules, and a new goal; these were my watchwords. I spent time reading John Wesley and Walter Benjamin. I reflected on Christian worship, on music in worship, on the liturgical needs for a changing church in changing times. I have avoided secular politics almost completely, precisely because I no longer wish to involve myself, my time and energy, there. My interests now are the future of The United Methodist Church, in particular how we can offer worship worthy of being called true praise of God even as we take risks both in our liturgy and our mission, our ministry and our private prayer and meditative life. To that end, I have tried as much as possible to concentrate my efforts on those themes and subjects. Recently, however, the controversy over LGBTQ people and our denomination has taken pride of place, even as I would much rather be doing other things. I wrote yesterday, reflecting on some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that our best hope as the Church is to let Christ be Christ, to be the Church of God, always at the foot of the cross, which is always planted firmly in this world. Thus it is that I think taking the stands I have taken is justified, at least to the extent that I have made clear my view of what the Church is, or least should be, perhaps even can be.
All the same, my primary interest is now, and has been from the beginning, to work on knocking down those walls I talked about between sacred and secular music, between all those labels that prevent us Christians from really singing a new song, from hearing music all around, over our heads, and from allowing music not only to be functional within the liturgy of the faithful, but to reflect the eschatological vision contained in the Revelation to St. John on Patmos. To do this interest justice, I need to spend time reading and learning, reflecting, getting some things right and other things wrong. I keep this site closed to comments because it is in comment sections that the toxicity of the Internet exists most clearly. My own experience with this toxicity is such that I prefer to offer these pieces without an opportunity for constructive dialogue to be broken down by the omnipresent trolls.
At the same time, there’s no reason any this shouldn’t be fun. Thus I try to include photos, music videos, and other things not only to hold the reader’s interest, but to make sure the reader knows that while I take the subject matter seriously, I do not take myself seriously at all. My own ignorance on so much needs to be kept in mind as you read.
Thus, we return to Adorno. Despite what seems at first blush to be the limited utility of his approach to music, I look forward to continuing to read and reflect upon his essays, a project I see taking a while considering the number of essays in the Leppert anthology. I will also try to refocus my own energies here on what was the original impetus behind it all: To destroy the barriers between what we call sacred and what we call secular, a project begun the moment Jesus died and, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, the curtain in the Temple separating the people from the Holy of Holies, was torn asunder, breaking forever the transcendence of God and inaugurating the age of Divine Immanence.
I hope you keep reading. I hope you don’t get bored. I hope you have as much fun reading as I have thinking and writing what appears here. And you can always get in touch with me by email – firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for sticking with me, and I look forward to what’s coming.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This heart-wrenching, sorrowful, rage-filled Psalm contains the most raw emotion of any of the Psalms. Indeed, perhaps few passages in Scripture surpass it. As the Israelites mourned their lost city; mourned their Promised Land; mourned their destroyed Temple; as they hung their harps in Babylon not by choice but by force, their situation is made worse by their captors’s taunts: “Sing us a song! We know you are such wonderful singers!” How could they, the People of the LORD, sing their songs of praise when all they had praised was gone, perhaps forever? While holding steadfast to their trust in God, they raged against the mockery, the loss, and most of all, the fear that their identity – “Should I forget Jerusalem” – would be lost forever. They promised vengeance. Vengeance upon the treacherous Edomites, their warring neighbors who had, no doubt, aided the Babylonians in the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. This rage spills over in to praise for infanticide against their enemies-now-their-captors. Few passages of Scripture strike the reader as roughly as verse 9.
We North American Christians – of whatever stripe, denomination, however we name ourselves – are increasingly finding ourselves like the captive children of Israel. The situation is made worse, spiritually and psychologically, because rather than being dragged in to exile in a foreign land, ours is a captivity in the midst of our very land. Let’s take a look at just one statistic. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012, from 1990 to 2008 (the latest date for which the Abstract could make estimates), the number of Americans citing “No Religion Specified” had grown from 14 million to 34 million. In terms of percentages, that’s nearly double, from 8% to 14% in 18 years.
The past two generations have seen church membership and attendance change from being a part of general sociability, even a mark of status depending upon the denomination, to one that is of decreasing relevance. We’ve tried gimmicks and formulas and gurus and those few successful pastors who’ve managed to grow their churches, yet it seems we reach an ever-dwindling populace, not so much hostile – “Sing us a song!” – as apathetic.
Add to this a philosophical and cultural change in much of North America, one often described as “mistrust of meta-narratives”, and it’s like a perfect storm of . . . what? not opposition? irrelevance? . . . and we in all our churches sit and weep, our harps hung up by the waters of the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Rock, the Roanoke, the Potomac, the Mississippi, and the Colorado, wondering how these places that within the lifetimes of so many had been not only familiar but friendly, had suddenly become so strange. How do we Christians, exiled in this land now foreign to our eyes and hearts, who can no longer hear our story of love and sin and redemption and a lived faith, sing our songs?
I think we see the varying reactions around us. Some demand a return to how things were. That church membership become something important; that the social and moral teachings of previous generations enjoy pride of place once again; that we ignore that our words are a foreign language to so many of our fellow Americans, and get out the message of sin and death, fear of hell, the transports of joy that come from dying in the faith. This story is the story of many; why not, they reason, insist it be the story for all?
As for the changes around us, they insist they are, at the very least, the result of sin, if not of direct diabolical influence. The choices are stark, yet simple. The choice is ours to make.
Others, however, hear the words of the exilic prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:4-9
Changed circumstances are not apocalyptic disaster; they might not even demand a refusal to accommodate to the new reality. On the contrary, we might well be called to live and serve even as exiles, to make homes and lives in places now strange to us. Our mission and ministry, perhaps, might well be best served by living and loving our neighbors as neighbors, even when who we are as members of Christ’s Body is as strange to them as the exiled Israelites must have seemed to the Babylonians.
We might well be a people increasingly foreign in our land. That does not mean we wage war against that land. In exile, the LORD called the people to live their lives, and in that way to show themselves to be a worthy people. Ministry in a hostile environment need not call forth a hostile response. It might, instead, invite us to think and live as who we are – the people of God – and therefore minister just by our living, in support of our neighbors, our communities, our cities, and our nation. This might speak much louder than the strange words of sin and resurrection that, far too often, have no translation in our new surroundings. Let us, then, seek the welfare of the communities of which we are a part. It is who an exiled people are called to be.
Were I a preacher, I know that I would not be sure what to do with the Lectionary Readings for tomorrow. I know, because as I read them, I was at a loss. The martyrdom of St. Stephen; a Psalm praying for refuge; the declaration that we are a holy nation, a royal priesthood; Jesus’s declaration of His oneness with the Father, and the disciples stubborn insistence not to understand him. Preaching on one of these, perhaps, might make some sense. The goal of the Lectionary, however, is to bring together these readings to bring a message of faith and hope to the congregation. The Word is to be proclaimed, even in the midst of the confusion that the words often create.
One of the things that unites these passages is the centrality of the presence of God in the lives of the people. In the Gospel account, Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that His presence with them is a Divine presence, because of the oneness of Father and Son through the Spirit. The disciples, as usually portrayed prior to the resurrection, just don’t get it. This, by the way, is a marvelous way to counter all those arguments about how to read Scripture. If the Bible is so easy to read and understand, how is it that we are so often presented with portraits of people who, presented in person with the words of Jesus or a prophet, either don’t get it or refuse to get it? How are we so sanguine about our understanding, even previous, comfortable or comforting understandings, if far too often we are told or shown explicitly, in the text itself, that there is a lack of understanding?
In any event, sticking with my general concern for the current state of the United Methodist Church, one thing I would highlight, to repeat myself, is the centrality of God. All these passages are about God, how we are to find refuge in God – sometimes even in the midst of terror and death because of our faith in God! – and how we are God’s people, to be about God’s work. The most troubling passage, then – perhaps not ironically – is the passage from St. John’s Gospel. Jesus is seeking to reassure the disciples that, despite what is about to occur – the arrest, the torture, the execution – the disciples are to take comfort from the Divine presence, a presence that has been with them from the beginning, a presence that will continue with them long after he, Jesus, is gone from them. Rather than listen and take comfort, however, the disciples set .to arguing. Phillip demands to see the Father, as if he hasn’t heard a single word Jesus has said, now, or in all the time Phillip has been following Jesus.
Last week’s blog post by Asbury Seminary President Timothy Tennent, insisting that the divide in the United Methodist Church is one of orthodoxy versus heterodoxy has stirred a huge response, including one from me. Yet, how much are these arguments like the disciples sitting there, listening to Jesus, being completely stupid about what he is telling them? Part of the reason we miss the point, and sit around and argue, is I think because we allow our agendas to override the Word before us. “Yes, yes, Jesus, it’s all very nice that you go to prepare a place for us, but I really need something a bit more before I throw myself willingly in to your service. Give me a sign. Show me the Father. Something, anything that will make all that you’re saying make some kind of sense.”
Yet, the Psalmist reminds us we are to seek refuge in God, to commend our spirits to God even as enemies press around us. This comes with neither proof nor guarantees. It is just what we are to do. Likewise, St. Stephen, threatened with death, declares a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God the Father, for which he is stoned to death. His last words are a prayer for forgiveness for those who are killing him, including a young Pharisee named Saul. The writer of the first Epistle of St. Peter declares we are a holy nation, a royal priesthood – those whose lives are dedicated to God in Jesus Christ, fed on the spiritual food necessary for life and health. This doesn’t guarantee our work will be successful or without conflict. It just means . . . that’s who we are and what we are to be about.
So embroiled in an argument about who’s right and who’s wrong; who’s in and who’s out; what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable behavior from those who claim the name of Christ, we have forgotten that we are those who are to commend our lives to God, to God’s service, even as the threat of persecution, perhaps even death, hangs over us. As I am so fond of saying, God loves us, but God doesn’t care all that much about us; being a follower of Jesus is neither easy nor fun, precisely because it is so demanding. All of us need to stop worrying about who’s right and who’s wrong, because that just isn’t who we are called to be. We are called to surrender our lives to God, to live as those hidden in God through the risen Christ, in service to the world in need of the Gospel. There will be a cost to this dedication and service. It won’t be the cost of being wrong, because all of us are probably mostly wrong anyway. It won’t be the cost of not having power or influence, because these are not ours to want or even seek. No, the cost is, as Jesus says elsewhere, our lives. When I say that God doesn’t care all that much about us, I am just repeating what is declared at our baptism: we are those who have died and risen with Christ. Our lives, such as they are, are no longer our own. We in the United Methodist Church need to remember that. We need to live it, because it is, after all, who we are – those making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
This is a service of love for God. It has nothing to do with us, our egos, our power, or who among us is right and who is wrong. Because it isn’t about us at all. We have surrendered our spirits, our very lives, to God, our refuge. Not a refuge from physical danger. Just a refuge from the fear of separation from the God who brings us life, who has called us to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood. A God whom we have come to know through the Son and the Son’s promise always to be with us, to grant us power to ask boldly in his, Jesus’s, name and have that prayer answered.
Which is why Saul, who stood and watched while St. Stephen was stoned, became the great Apostle to the Gentiles – because Stephen’s prayer as he was dying, a prayer for forgiveness for those who were killing him, was granted. Let us remember this: It isn’t about us, our lives, our fortunes, our health, our popularity, or even our pasts. It’s about God, God’s future, a work into which we are baptized, for which we are strengthened around a common table, and to which we are sent after giving our worship to God. Because it’s all about God. Not us.
Sing to him a new song;
play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts. – Psalm 33:3
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. – Psalm 40:3
As I think I’ve said before, with the exception of money, nothing will stir up a fight in the local church like music. I think that’s a good sign that, at the very least, some members of the congregation understand the importance of music in our collective worship life. All the same, I think our churches and clergy have done a poor job teaching our churches* what worship is and how music fits in the worship life of the congregation. A couple years back, at the last United Methodist General Conference, there was a lot of discussion on what made “vital congregations”. Not listed among the criteria was an openness to a variety of worship and music styles in the same service. We tend to have “traditional” services separate from “contemporary”, as if somehow the tradition wasn’t a living thing, contemporaneous with our lives of faith. Arguments over worship, and the place of music in worship, get so confused precisely because we ignore the most basic Biblical mandate – the people of God are a singing people, specifically singing praise to God, always looking for a new song.
One of the worst, most self-indulgent, and lazy “worship” alternatives is the “hymn sing”. The same hymns get sung, the same way. There is nothing wrong, of course, with “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace”. At the first church my wife served, a member insisted on singing his favorite hymn, “Take Time To Be Holy”, and not only have I come to appreciate this beautiful hymn, but I will always associate it, and its expression of deep faith with the person who loved it so, a gift I am happy to carry with me. All the same, this is not the purpose of worship, and certainly not the way music is to be used in worship, i.e., to sing the same songs, either out of habit or the need for some kind of emotional comfort. While part of worship, to be sure, is to receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit, assuring us of our salvation, this is not the role music is to play. Nor should we, as congregations, be indulging in nostalgia or lazy habits when it comes to how we use music in our corporate worship.
Worship is primarily about our corporate praise of God. In our declarations of faith, in hearing the Scriptures read and proclaimed, in receiving the Sacrament, and in our music – all of it is for God. That we receive comfort, or perhaps discomfort; that we feel accepted, or perhaps rejected; that we leave filled with the Spirit, or perhaps wondering where the Spirit has gone; anything to do with us, either individually or collectively, is incidental to the primary – I’m tempted to say sole, but I won’t go that far – purpose of the gathered Body of Christ, which is the collective proclamation of faith in and through our collective praise of God.
Now, the setting of the Nunc Dimittis just above is nearly 500 years old, yet for most North American congregations, it would probably qualify as a “new song”. At the same time, many would find comfort in the style: the instrumentation, the use of polyphony, the aesthetically pleasing harmonies. Some might be put off by the Latinate verbiage. Others might not like that it is more a performance than anthemic, an expression of faith and praise by a portion of the congregation representing the whole. For an anthem, something such as the following might “feel” more suitable:
For many, however, something like the following not only “feels” right, but fits with the kind of comfort we seek from corporate worship. At the same time, there are many for whom this style of music and the words attached certainly qualify as “new”:
Several years ago, I taught a class on how to theologize from music. One of the songs I used to promote the class was Black Sabbath’s “After Forever”.
Juxtaposing thinking about God with a performance from Black Sabbath is certainly shocking. At the same time, this early song, with lyrics written by Ozzy Osbourne, who was troubled by the band’s reputation, would certainly qualify, in the proper context, as a song of praise. Shocking, yes. Certainly worthy of getting people’s attention, getting some discussion and dialogue going, to be sure. Nonetheless, I will always maintain this song has no less theological merit than anything in our hymnals. Precisely because it is a plea to remember that we are a people who are to love (and despite their reputation, and thematic content, most of Black Sabbath’s material, especially early in their career, was a lament at the state of a world as seen from the crumbling industrial confines of Birmingham), and that love is from God, it is rooted in Scriptures and tradition and reason and experience. The only thing “wrong” with it is a musical style many find off-putting. Of course, many people find The Gaither Vocal Band off-putting.
The point of all this is simple enough: It’s all up for grabs, as long as God is praised. There is no reason, other than avoiding local church conflict, not to integrate any and all musical styles in our corporate worship. The Biblical mandate to let the LORD put a new song on our lips, to sing a new song in praise of God should guide how we incorporate music in our worship. We shouldn’t allow habit, or the felt need for comfort, or personal taste, interfere with the possibility of praising God in new ways. When all is said and done and sung, our worship is about praising God. That should always be the goal. We can use various means to teach this to our congregations, and give them a sense of new possibilities for praise.
*This is a particular insistence of mine: If there’s one area where our churches just haven’t done what they should, it’s the teaching office. We relegate that to Sunday School and Education Committees, instead of seeing all of our collective life as opportunities to teach. That’s a post for another day.