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.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God. – Refrain, “Shall We Gather At The River”, Robert Lowry
It is Sunday morning. Millions of Christians around the world have or will gather together this morning to give praise and honor and glory to our God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We shall confess our sins. We shall sing our praises. We shall offer our prayers. We shall gather around the table The LORD sets for us, remembering and hoping that this gathering has been and will be our final gathering place. We shall hear the Word read and proclaimed, the Good News offered to us. We shall hear the commandment to share that Good News in and through our words and lives with the whole world.
It is Sunday morning. It is the time to worship.
For all the nonsense, not only in the United Methodist Church but in all churches however they call themselves, this is the day and the hour we gather before God to sing and pray and be renewed by our God of eternal life. All our strife and name-calling. All the carrying on, the myriad ways division and discord are sewed, threats of schism and denunciations as heretics for this or that ridiculous reason gets set aside as the people of God in all our glorious diversity of languages, traditions, doctrines, and worship styles will allow the Spirit to intercede for us, taking our fumbling words and half-hearted confessions and offerings and make of them something holy, something worthy, acceptable to the Father in the Son.
One church might have people sitting quietly. Another might feature rousing choruses, people standing and clapping and shouting for joy. Still another might have people move from seated to kneeling to standing. Of course the Russian Orthodox Church continues the ancient tradition of people standing in worship (and please not that gorgeous altar in the photo). The reality of diverse worship styles should humble our need to insist on particular ways in which we as the gathered people of God sing, pray, hear, taste, and confess our lives. Our Sunday realities belie whatever demands we make of others the rest of the week.
We all get so caught up in our own little agendas, I think we forget that the true test of whatever we offer others is how well our words match up to what others are really doing in the real world. I don’t just mean ethical controversies about sex, say, or deep doctrinal differences such as those between the East and West or Protestant and Roman. Even those temptests in tea-pots like whether or not to clap in worship; whether shouting acclamation during sermons is acceptable; whether we dress in suit and tie or shorts and a t-shirt. The reality is these are all part of the worshiping life of Christians around the world, and as we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, on this day most especially, grace should be our first response to those in our midst who might look or act in ways different from “the way we’ve always done it”.
Most of all, Sunday should be the day we set to one side the ridiculous shouting about who’s right and who’s wrong; who’s a heretic and who’s orthodox (however that word is defined); who is really a Christian and who’s just going through the motions. If the doctrine of original sin has any meaning at all; if the need for salvation is as real as we claim it to be; if the reality of constant confession and the intercession of the Spirit even in our holiest of moments is necessary; perhaps we should be just a bit less strident, at least on this day, even to those whose ideas about some things strike us as funny:
Right or wrong, these no less than we are children of God, beloved and embraced. Is anyone willing to say that even these blessed Baptist believers exist outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Just how sure are any of us, on this day when we confess our sins; confess our need always for God’s presence; accept the just Word that our sins should require our death but that God has chosen life for us; just how sure are we that the Spirit isn’t hovering over those waters of chaos, that Christ isn’t present because two or three are gathered in the name of the Crucified and Risen One?
In the bulletins in my home church as a child, “Enter In Prayer. Stay In Prayer. Leave In Prayer” appeared just before the announcement of the Prelude. Few things have been as formative for my faith and worship life as those nine words. It is time to worship, to gather before our God to give honor and glory and praise; to confess our inability so to come based on any merit we have; to be thankful for the grace offered to us in Word, at the Table, and in the Water of our Baptisms. In all the ways we are so different, we are all the same. Let us now worship our God.
The scriptures tell us that we have been set free from the laws of sin and death because there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Think about it: no condemnation.
Go, live as free people, free to love and offer light to others because that we what we want for ourselves. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Bodily Constrictions And The Nature Of Freedom”, The Thoughtful Pastor, July 4, 2015
Pastors are expected , from the earliest days, to be exemplary Christians. A pastor’s exemplary moral life is an aspect of of the pastor’s service to the people of God. . . .
It is not that the pastor is expected to be a morally more exemplary Christian than other Christians, but rather that pastors are expected to behave in a way that befits their public and communal, that is, churchly, obligations. . . . Clearly pastors are to be role models for the church, without the troublesome modern separation between public and private, social and personal, behavior. – William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Our family has fallen in love with the show Sons of Anarchy. If you don’t know about it, the Sons are a motorcycle club that runs the small northern California town of Charming. Filled with violence, sex, foul language, and offering us villains as heroes, it is drama in a direct line from A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski was more than an anti-hero; he was a small-minded, greedy, lust-filled wife-beating low life who destroyed whatever he touched. In much the same way, the men in SOA are also greedy, lust-filled, gluttonous, violent low-lifes who destroy what they try to protect. Except, like Stanley, we come not just to understand, but like these big, burly, brutal bikers. During the first season, some ATF agents were trying to get information that could put the club members behind bars. My older daughter got all huffy. “Why are they doing that? Why can’t they leave the Sons alone?” My answer – “Because they’re murderous gun-runners who help international terrorists” – made her stop and say, “Yeah, OK.”
Fifteen years ago, the wife of the Congregational minister in the town Lisa was serving as UM pastor held an open community forum on the moral dangers represented by the Harry Potter books. Leaving aside everything such a sentence brings up in most people, it’s easy for me to say that I am – and by extension our family is – a very different kind of clergy spouse and family than this gentle lady. Not only do I like a television program that celebrates pretty much everything we Christians are supposed to reject, I declare that support in public.
When our girls were in elementary school, someone asked what I would do if one of them decided to become Goth, with the appearance change and dress. My answer was simple: I couldn’t care less. What if one of them became pregnant, I was asked. My wife and I would make sure she found a doctor, received the proper nutrition, and love her and the baby no matter what. The questions were an attempt to pigeon-hole me as someone who would raise a moral ruckus in the face of some act of adolescent defiance. Except, of course, I’m not that kind of person. No matter this person’s insistence that I would, say, insist my children ditch the black clothes and makeup and stop being Goth, I just couldn’t imagine doing such a thing.
Truth is, folks who live outside the margins of social acceptability are folks toward whom I try to gravitate. One reason I like SOA is that I like bikers. Not just the weekenders, but folks in clubs, outlaw and legit. Deadheads, too, are a group I think is awesome. Artists, bohemians, Marxists, folks in non-traditional relationships, hard-scrabble working class salt-of-the-earth folks – these, too, get my admiration. Rastas and others with their long dreds? Beautiful.
The inevitable question is: Do I approve of the lives they lead? Well, it’s because of the life they lead that I find them worthy of admiration. That doesn’t mean I approve of all the things they do. What I admire is the sense of shared commitment to a life that refuses to bow to the social and cultural pressure to conform to our rather boring and morally childish “American Mainstream”. These are people who, either through choice or the vicissitudes of our social and racial class system could be considered failures, society’s rejects. They don’t look clean and pressed. They aren’t ambitious, at least not in the traditional sense. They may barely scrape by week-to-week. They engage in what many consider self-destructive behaviors. They know the inside of the county jail.
Usually, it is that final list upon which people focus their attention. After all, being a Christian, aren’t I supposed to live according to a higher moral standard? As part of a clergy family, aren’t we supposed to model a particularly exemplary moral life together? With that moral life, shouldn’t it follow that I wouldn’t dare allow my daughter to watch a program like SOA? Shouldn’t I be denouncing both the show as well as those who enjoy it? How is it possible that I can claim to admire criminals, atheists, drug users and others who are precisely those whose moral life is so abysmal?
The answer to that question is simple: I can make that claim because these folks and others like them live without the pretense too many of us are forced to wear. Look, let’s be upfront. Who reading this has lived a crime-free life? Smoked a little weed, maybe each day or perhaps just when you were younger? You ever have sex before or outside marriage? You ever look around at our too-fast, success-demanding American life and think, “Wow, this is crap”? If so, then the folks to whom I ascribe admiration have, at the very least, the honesty not to pretend to be anything other than who they are. They don’t make excuses, apologies, or laud their lives over others.
We in the Church are supposed to be honest about one simple thing: That we are sinners. Not just individually, but together our lives are broken, separated from God, a constant struggle against all the things that would keep us from the One who creates us, loves us, redeems us, and one day will raise us. What unites us is our self-identity as those who are more than just failures at being Christians. We’re failures at the very things that people think Christians ought to be: moral exemplars for the rest of society. Rather than upholding an ever-changing set of restrictive moral behaviors as identifiers, shouldn’t we be those who uphold ourselves as failures, drunkards, sexually lax, greedy, gluttonous layabouts? The insistence that we should also be those who are trying to be better misses another important feature of being a Christian. It’s our constant insistence that it is we who are doing this trying that always lands us back in the hole from which we keep trying to crawl.
The Christian life isn’t about being morally upright. It’s about being disciples of the crucified and risen Christ. Ours should be a life of love and devotion and service, bringing the love God embodied in the life and ministry of that same Jesus of Nazareth – to the drunkards and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, all those who were ignored and even despised by the good morally upright religious folks of ancient Judea. Jesus spent so much time with these folks that he was widely derided as a drunkard, a glutton, and a whore-monger. When was the last time anyone in the church received such a compliment?
Ours should be a life lived on those same margins where these misfits, outcasts, and criminals live. I would so much rather churches be places known for their sinners rather than their community leaders. For far too long, the Christian churches in America have allowed themselves to be captured by our social betters, leaving our mission little more than noblesse oblige, our sermons moral lessons for those who already know what those moral lessons are, and our members more worried about whether they’ve worn their proper suit and tie than inviting that homeless guy on the corner to join them for worship. To be a Christian for me is to live an alternative lifestyle, one that reflects our self-identity as those who believe themselves separated from God; those who live not to succeed but to serve; those who are more concerned with those who have no clothes than what are our proper Sunday clothes.
We pray, the pastor leading. Together we say a general confession and then are given time for our own silent and personal confession. Suddenly I am aware that prayer is not media-friendly. Churches web-streaming their services dare not practice silence. Music, movement, words and enthusiasm must fill each millisecond. Yet how much the human soul needs those increasingly rare and healing moments of quietness and contemplation! – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Mystery Worship That Fed My Soul,” The Thoughtful Pastor, June 18, 2015
At Tuesday night’s Ordination Service, the congregation sang “Down To The River To Pray,” revived by Alison Kraus for the Coen brother’s movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Actually, the congregation didn’t sing much at all. The choir sang and some few in the congregation sang while the rest kind of sat there, not quite sure what to do. It made me sad, really, that this beautiful old spiritual didn’t have everyone singing, eyes closed, picturing ourselves gathering around the banks of a river to watch the rebirth of sisters and brothers in that cool flowing water.
According to the song’s Wikipedia page, the first printed version of the song is from an 1867 publication, Slave Songs of the United States, transcribed during Reconstruction under the title, “The Good Old Way”. In the Coen Brother’s film, the song is used to jar both characters and audience out of the narrative flow of three convicts escaped from a Mississippi chain gang. The moment is done so perfectly well in the film, it can still bring chills after repeated viewings.
And isn’t that how the best spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs should act? Shouldn’t they jar us – gently to be sure; insistently without doubt – out of our everyday, reminding us that we are singing together, our voices rising to heaven?
In something like Providence perhaps, the Rev. Christy Thomas’s entry in her “Mystery Worship” series, quoted in part and linked above (and I would invite everyone to read her simple, clear, beautiful piece) reminds readers that worship isn’t about how. It’s about who, or perhaps Who. To whom is the worship directed? How is the liturgy, the songs and the spoken word, the congregational and silent prayer structured so that the congregation becomes aware they are invited, yet again, to be called out to worship our Living God?
I continue to believe it is both possible and necessary to incorporate contemporary musics in to Christian worship with faithful integrity. In my advocacy, however, I believe I have neglected to emphasize that we need to retain what is best from our traditions of liturgy, worship, architecture, and overall feel of the worshiping experience. I despise those who dismiss contemporary musical instrumentation out of an ahistorical preference for traditional instrumentation such as the organ. When it is argued that the organ is made for Christian worship, there is little mention made of the centuries-long (and still on-going in some places) argument over what, precisely, makes for proper musical instrumentation in Christian worship. Some denominations, including the Church of Christ, continue to sing a capella, understanding any instrumentation as too worldly for Christian worship. We should honor the contingency and history of forms of Christian worship by never assuming one confession or denomination has it right. Even we United Methodists spent much of our history instrument-free, with pianos damned because of their place in bars and the sporting life, the organ to “Roman”.
We should never – ever! – discard tradition just because it is tradition. We should never – ever! – dismiss innovation because it is innovative. A favorite phrase from my seminary days explains the challenge we always face. We must keep these things in tension, a living witness to the difficulty of faithfulness in our world. Thus it is good and right there continue to be churches like the Presbyterian Church in Texas Christy attended this past Sunday. It is good and right there continues to be liturgy that offers silence and quiet, a respite from the onslaught of sounds with which we live most hours of every day. It is a blessing to enter a space built to separate those within in it, calling them together as a congregation, instead of building just another auditorium for an audience to watch a performance. We are Church, ekklesia, those called out of the world to be the Body of Christ in and for the world; our worship should, in how it looks and sounds, what is missing and in those silences, bring us together to direct our prayers, our praise, and our faith, hope, and love to the God to whom it is due.
These are just preliminary thoughts, mind you. Working it out in more detail requires time, reflection, repentance, and of course experience. Still, the challenge this simple spiritual and the history it holds; the worship experience of another reminding readers of the power of traditional liturgical forms; all this and more remind me that there is no final answer, no correct way to be about worship, and that we should work out how we do this as St Paul instructed – with fear and trembling.
John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. – John 3:16-18
We who are labeled, or perhaps label ourselves, “progressives” in the Church – and oh how I wonder what that particular label means – are often accused by our brothers and sisters of being too mealy-mouthed, unwilling to offer both the bad with the good, at least when it comes to presenting the clarity of the message of the faith: that believing and living faith in Jesus Christ has real consequences, in this world and the next; likewise choosing not to hear or so live has real consequences as well, and not what any would call good. Just the other day, the Rev. Christy Thomas wondered in an aside in a piece recounting a visit to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, if we who bare that meaningless label “progressive” have the ability to remain vital precisely because we concern ourselves with openness rather than building clear boundaries between ourselves and others; the latter, she noted, seems to be a particular human characteristic that is almost ubiquitous. Part of the discomfort, I believe, includes a hesitancy in presenting the message of salvation – what we call the Gospel, euangelion, Good News – in its full import and weight. That would include the flip-side of all our talk of Divine forbearance, grace, the holy life, and the Grand Welcome at the New Creation: the very real (in Scripture) word that some, at least, shall turn to God to plead their case and the God whose endless love, dogged pursuit, and all-embracing grace shall turn to them and say, “I don’t know who you are,” and their end shall be, shall we say, less than pleasant. First the Pit, then at the New Creation, a turn in the Lake of Fire before that, too, is destroyed along with all that is sinful, broken, and evil in “the former things”.
My wife and I have always enjoyed a good chuckle at the above partial-passage (the fancy term is the Greek word pericope). Yet, the message of Jesus . . . was it any different? Substantively, of course we have to say that it was, if only because of who Jesus was as opposed to John the Baptizer. Yet Jesus always insisted there was a not-so-happy ending for those who rejected him and his followers. The mystery of Divine Judgment is a difficult point of contention among Christians, to be sure. As I noted yesterday, our human understanding of justice have absolutely nothing to do with Divine righteousness. So, too, the passages in Scriptures regarding judgment, damnation, and most especially those that hint at predestination have led many over the centuries to conclude the mass of humanity, regardless of their most sincere efforts and honest faithfulness, shall nevertheless wind up someplace uncomfortably warm when all is said and done. Particularly in our current moment, with a resurgence of neo-Calvinist thought from what was once called “the Emergent Church Movement” offering young men especially the consolation that cultural and social norms of masculinity bear the stamp of Divine approval, it is with a wariness Calvin himself (if rarely in those who followed him) enjoined that anyone should venture to speculate on the mysteries of predestination, damnation, and how one could know how one fits in to the Divine Economy.
Personally, I’ve always thought the occasional hell-fire and brimstone sermon was a good thing. It reminds us that our business is serious, that this whole Christian thing is no trifle but, on the contrary even the most mundane moment carries eternal significance, both in a sublime but also in a terrible sense. I also think such things should be targeted carefully. Everything is context dependent. For example, telling a young Palestinian Christian that he has to believe in Jesus and be good or he will go to hell ignores the fundamental hellishness of his day-to-day existence. My guess is such a message would receive more of a shrug than anything. On the other hand, telling a young, upper-middle class white woman that baptism enjoins her to incarnate the love of God for this world; that failing to do so, whether out of ignorance or a preference for comfort or worst of all refusing to see in the naked, hungry, and imprisoned her brothers and sisters, does indeed bring with it a cost far more high than the occasional discomfort she might experience being with those who are dirty and in need. In other words, we privileged Westerners – we privileged white Westerners in particular – could benefit from the reminder that “the Good News” carries with it concomitant bad news. We are, after all, like the Pharisees as presented in another Gospel account of John the Baptizer, who responded to their approach: “You hypocrites! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” We need to recognize our place in the current Providence of God, and live accordingly, always with the memory that we are not Christians to be comforted in our already-comfortable existence. We are Christians because God has called us to a great work. Failing to do that work and coming up with excuse after excuse as to why we aren’t doing it carries an eternal cost.
This is serious business. Life-and-death stuff. Hearing the whole Good News and remembering it is always bad news for someone else – including us – is a good thing. Even for a mushy progressive like me.
It seems to me that our concern with the music includes, but does not begin from, the way that it is used: in other words, the aesthetic question is primary, as I have suggested in the introduction. Our concern has to begin from the sounds, because until we cognize the sounds, until we have created an internal representation on the basis of their assimilation, we have no musical entity to care about, or to which to give value. Once sounds have been produced, nobody is in a position to exclusively determine how they are to be taken (the appropriation by racist skinhead culture of millenarian reggae is a prime example). This does not mean that the musical text may be considered to arise ex nihilo. It is produced by groups of musician working in social contexts, but they are not my primary concern. I am far less interest in uncovering the circumstances which produced the music that I am in exploring how listeners may respond to it. As listeners, although we must recognize and exteriorize our grounds for cognizing the text, this does not imply that we will all do it in the same way. How we do it will depend on the style to which we assign that text, and our competence within that style . . . . I therefore make no apology for my emphasis throughout being on the sounds themselves, nor for attempting to provide for any interpretation of them a theoretical underpinning that does not assume one particular established musicological theory to be congruent to the music at all points (and thus correct), merely because of apparent surface similarities between he melody, chords or rhythm used used by Schumann (say) and the Beatles. I shall ‘dram on sociological research to give my analysis proper perspective (Tagg 1982: 40) but, for me, the aesthetic question has primacy. – Alan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, Developing A Musicology of Rock, 2nd Ed., p. 17
Christmas Eve, 2013 found me at my childhood home, attending Christmas Eve services at the United Methodist Church in my hometown. The sanctuary was packed to overflowing. The service was not your typical candelight service. In the midst of it all, the chancel choir – about 10 people – offered selections from Handel’s Messiah. When the “Hallelujah!” was sung, I stood with the rest of the congregation and sang along. All the same, I was both sympathetic and sad. Sympathetic because this small town church choir was certainly attempting to offer musical praise worthy of the moment. That they just weren’t up to the task, however, is what made me sad. Handel’s oratorio needs an enormous, talented choir, a suitable orchestra to capture the flavor of the accompaniment, and for all they were game to try, the folks at the Waverly, NY UMC just weren’t up to the task.
Last Christmas season, the Rev. Christy Thomas, in one of her “Mystery Worship” pieces that run concurrently in her local Denton, TX newspaper, wrote:
I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today.
In defense of this statement, she offers the notion that we in the West, particularly our elites, are far less Biblically literate than were elites (and common people as well) were in the days when Handel composed his mighty work. While I believe that is true, I offered, in comments, the idea that Handel’s Messiah could not be written today not out of Biblical illiteracy but rather because musical styles have changed, musical tastes have changed, and music itself has changed radically over the centuries. Any attempt to create something like The Messiah today would run up against multiple barriers, not the least of them being a general inability to accept large musical structures. Contemporary musical styles and idioms are not able, by and large, to work within parameters set by the needs of something like the original libretto for the oratorio.
After reading again Alan Moore’s “Introduction” and much of the first chapter of Rock: The Primary Text, I have come to see that so much of our discussion about music in church – what has come to be called “the worship wars” – lacks the kind of understanding of what Moore calls “the aesthetic dimension,” i.e., the sounds qua musical sounds to make our discussions about music in worship anything other than people stating personal preferences and appealing to (theological and historical) authority, tradition, and other non-reasons rather than paying attention to how the sounds we hear might well work in particular ways.
This past Sunday, while my wife and I were serving as greeters for the 11:00 a.m. service at Christ UMC, an acquaintance came out and mentioned the chancel choir that sings at the 9:30 service had performed Vivaldi’s Gloria oratorio. I smiled and noted how nice that was, while inside I was wondering why in heaven’s name such a feat was even attempted. Yet, it is part of our particular idiocy regarding music in church that we continue to separate “traditional” from “contemporary” music, as if a performance of Vivaldi were part of our United Methodist heritage. Such an act, it seems to me, has little to do with the music itself. It is, rather, an expression both of class and personal preference without regard to how the music itself might or might not be meaningful.
None of which is to say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with performing Gloria, or The Messiah, or any other piece of music from the Western orchestral tradition. It is, rather, to say that our clergy and music leaders aren’t learned enough about questions of musicology to ask such pertinent questions as whether a particular piece of music has any meaning for listeners beyond satisfying a quirky sense of superiority among (largely) educated and (predominantly) white North American Christians. It might be the case that some, perhaps, among the listeners had a spiritually meaningful experience because the music itself was meaningful. I would continue to insist, however, that most listeners – and in churches, musicians, ministers or leaders of corporate music and worship, and clergy – are less attentive to matters of musical style and meaning than they are to statements of personal preference without reference to the sounds themselves.
Part of the reason for the title of this post is to insist that, rather than continue our stale and irrelevant dualisms – “traditional” versus “contemporary” – it might be the case we need to stop, take a step back, and about matters of style, the music itself and how that music as a human construct following particular harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and timbral rules, serves as a vehicle for meaning. Only then, it seems to me, should we then take the next step and ask about matters of personal or corporate taste, based not so much in simple “like” or “dislike” categories as much as they might be in a real understanding of the working of music as music.
Theology and musicology have to work together to move us through this particular impasse that bifurcates our congregations, drives some people out of some churches, and cannot be satisfactorily ended precisely because no one is talking about the music as a conveyer of meaning. I am not suggesting at all that I have any such competence. I do believe, however, there are resources available for some people, at least, to begin such a discussion. Only then might our discussions over worship and music be served well, and perhaps become fruitful for clergy and laity alike.
I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today. During Handel’s time, educated people were far more steeped in Bible then we are today. Their sources of information far fewer, the ones they had were more known than ours. When Charles Jennings put together that string of Scriptures that became the libretto to the composition, he clearly did so with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, of the state of humanity, and of the grace and goodness of God.
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Somewhere, somehow, we need a new Pentecost, one that will teach us once more how to speak the Gospel in languages others know. I believe that it will come. I believe that God still wants to speak peace to the “heathens,” whom I define as any who have yet to come to the healing language of grace, peace and forgiveness. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Denton Mystery Worship Eleven: Reflections On The Messiah And Methodism,” The Thoughtful Pastor.com, December 17, 2014
What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church. Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it. So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand. Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening. And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120
I have another blog where I reflect on what I’m reading. I’m currently reading Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop. In a recent post on two chapters in that book, I included a video from DMX for the song “Look Thru My Eyes”, about which I wrote:
The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent. He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding. He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was. Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back. As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly. Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives. The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.
In the song above, DMX has clearly moved on, yet still struggling to be who he knows he can be even as he is immersed in a world that only wants him to be what they tell him he should be: violent, threatening, the very poster-child for our social evils.
In a piece written about attending a partial performance of Handel’s The Messiah at a United Methodist Church in her hometown of Denton, TX, Rev. Thomas wonders whether such a piece could even be written and received today. I would insist that such a question is meaningless, for several reasons. For one thing, it reifies what is historical, ripping Handel’s oratorio out of its place in history and making it not only a commodity, but in doing so making it something it is not – a fetish, something timeless, a thing unto itself (thank you, Theodor Adorno!). Handel wrote The Messiah at a time when the baroque style was exhausting itself across Europe; when the continent itself was undergoing a socio-economic shift driven by aristocratic protests against absolute monarchy; when the move from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was already underway. In short, for all its beauty and power, it is a thing of history, with a past, a present that is our past, and a future that is our present. The meaning of the words has also most certainly shifted, as our understanding of the Scriptural passages has changed over the centuries. Not the least problem is that it was written as an Easter oratorio, not a Christmas oratorio. That alone demonstrates the massive shift in our understanding of the piece.
Furthermore, by searching the conservatories and concert halls for The Messiah, by claiming a need for a new Pentecost without looking around – or better listening around – Thomas misses all the ways contemporary music styles provide all sorts of thoughtful, meaningful Biblical and theological fodder for people younger than we. Wondering about The Messiah ignores the socio-historical reality that people younger than we are distrustful of large institutions and organizations; I would extend that to attempts at large-scale musical compositions as well. The Messiah was written in a time and place when the all-encompassing, totalizing reality of Christianity offered a wholeness that has been questionable for over a century. This is not due to any fault within Christianity itself. Rather, the events of the 20th century, particularly for youth and young people in the United States for the past two generations have all but eliminated any faith in completion, finality, and wholeness. The Messiah could not be written, and if it were would not be received well, because it offers what too many no longer accept – a narrative that encompasses all of reality, purporting to explain what is actually a series of open questions to be pursued by communities of faith in their own way.
When Rev. Thomas brings up the issues facing The United Methodist Church, while noting the absence of younger people in far too many of our congregations, she may not be aware that we have yet to understand how our churches turn away youth and young people by our demands, our answers, and our refusal to listen to a vernacular with which we are uncomfortable. It isn’t just our recent focus on sexuality; it is a whole system of youth and young adult ministry that seeks to provide answers without waiting for the questions. Far too many of our churches are uncomfortable with baggy pants, tattoos, and most especially white congregations are afraid of young people like rapper DMX, even as he insists we should be afraid, but not of who he is. We are at a point in our history, yet again, where the young African-American male is yet again the front-page threat to our lives and our social stability. Our churches could provide safe places for young African-Americans to come and be heard, to be listened to on their own terms without judgment or precondition, yet even our historically black congregations seem unwilling to open our doors that far, despite our marketing motto.
The Messiah may well be out there. Just not in one piece. It might be in a small club holding a freestyle poetry night. It might be in a concert venue, filled with youth, black and white, listening to the questions, given against a background that makes those questions not so much aesthetic and theological as existential and of deadly importance. When we wonder where our youth and young people are, it might be a good idea to listen to them, their fears, their rage, their distrust of institutions, and how we contribute to our own demise through our refusal, as an organization, to open ourselves to the world as it really is, preferring to perform The Messiah at Christmas instead of selections from Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Ice Cube.