Saturday, February 24, 2007

May the Thunder of the Desert, Rain Blessing on Our Heads

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that one element of post-modern worship music is lyrics filled with disjointed images. The lines themselves may refer to Scripture or an image from Scripture, or an application of a biblical concept, but the combination of the lines only serve to deliver a hodge-podge of diverse images that have nothing to do with one another, seem to be chosen for their rhyming potential, and do not work as a systematic line of reasoning or discourse which grants any sort of understanding.

The images of Scripture form a rich tapestry of recognizable and consistent ideas that promote an intellectual and emotional understanding. There is inherent unity, repetition, expansion, and irony that is possible because of the context and connection of these references.

This is rarely true in lyrics that seem to rely upon a “cool” concept or “safe” religious words. If stuck for a two-syllable word, “holy” generally works well. Sometimes “holy, holy” is effective. Forget about the biblical, Trinitarian repetition of holy—especially if you’re only lacking four syllables. Of course, “hallelujah” works for four syllables as well.

The dripping emotionalism of God being “the air we breath,” of Jesus thinking of me “above all” others while on the cross (not you, but me—Jesus loves me best), of the “passion in the art,” the resolve that we make to live in the light of the reformation truth of Soli Deo Gloria (which contradicts the Reformation teaching), the subjective assessment of God being altogether lovely, worthy, and wonderful to me because of my personal experience with Him, and songs that talk about the fact that we’re just about ready to sing about the fact that we are planning on joining in worship after we sing about what God is going to do when we do finally get around to worshipping.

The other thing I can’t understand is why it takes three of four people to write a song with four lines of repeated lyrics and two lines of music.

It bears repeating that even though lyrics may be biblically true, they may not be presented in a manner that is good or beautiful. In fact, the very way in which they are presented may undermine the actual content. For example, we should ascribe glory to the Lord, but by the time we’ve repeated the word “glory” 25 times, have we really understood the concept of ascribing glory? Has there been a deepening of our understanding? A growing in knowledge or wisdom?

There is a burden of discourse, biblical connectivity, historical continuity, and intellectual as well as emotional instruction that should be inherent in the songs we sing. Artsy images may catch our imagination, but having been caught, where do they ultimately lead.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Missing the Point about Lent

The Church of England in the West Midlands is opening a comedy club for Lent—The Laughing Sole. The posters sport a fish in uproarious laughter. This is part of the “Love Life Live Lent2” campaign which includes daily text messages of fifty positive “actions to encourage kindness and generosity.”

This kind and gentle approach to Lent turns the focus away from spiritual disciplines to a feel-good attitude towards the community of humankind. The true locus of Lent and spiritual disciplines is God and His grace. Do good actions appeal to human vanity. You can read the full story from the BBC.

On this side of the world, apparently the Today Show is doing a twist on Lent with the “Could You Do Without?” segment. One family lived without modern appliances for a week. This was, of course, completely devoid of any spiritual purpose and more of a sociology experiment. However, it is fascinating that the idea of a fast translates into secular humanist religion.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Giving Up and Adding On for Lent

The framers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism were well aware of not only man’s sin nature in transgressing the laws of God but also of the proclivity to not do those things to which He has called us. Sins of omission and commission. As they put it, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” It is that lack of conformity to the law of God which we most easily excuse and dismiss. After all, I have not murdered anyone, used the name of God in vain, committed adultery, stolen property, etc. today so I must be doing okay with the commandments. Again and again we are reminded that we may tithe our mint and dill and cumin but that we have neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (humility).

So in this time of Lent, what shall I give up to remind me of my fallen state and my need for forgiveness as I seek to become more holy? Chocolate? TV and mass media? How often do we try to affect holiness by screwing up our resolve, making promises, and trying to make it under our own power? To be sure, there is a place and call for fasting—from food, from situations, from elements of the world.

However, as Thomas Chalmers reminds us in his sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” the rooting out of the sinful elements of the world is best accomplished by replacing that desire with something more powerful and desirable—the Gospel. Holiness is not just turning away from wickedness but rather it is the ontological declaration of righteousness in Christ manifested, and growing through, the disciplines of grace as a new affection. You can never replace something with nothing.

With that in mind, I have decided this year to not be so caught up in the idea of giving things up for Lent as much as adding on the disciplines of grace—prayer, fasting, meditating on the Word of God, gifts of mercy, the sacraments, the communion of the saints. May the Lord shape my affections in such a manner that I have fewer things in my life from which to abstain. How joyous it is to embrace the Gospel!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Worship Notes 16 February 2007

Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) is probably best known for his hymn “Rock of Ages.” Originally a follower of Wesley, in 1758, he adopted Calvinist doctrine. In his early twenties he was ordained an Anglican priest after his studies in London and Dublin. In 1775, he left the Church of England and began to preach at a French Calvinist church in London. A staunch Calvinist, he wrote such books as The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted and Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. Banner of Truth has a great short article on Toplady which includes a poem he wrote at the age of 15 about the nature and character of God.

Toplady wrote the following hymn in 1774 which we will sing at Parish Pres on Sunday. It beautifully weaves the themes of substitutionary atonement, imputed sin, imputed righteousness, the need for the Incarnation, and the joy of salvation in Christ.

Fountain of never ceasing grace,
Thy saints’ exhaustless theme,
Great object of immortal praise,
Essentially supreme;
We bless Thee for the glorious fruits
Thine incarnation gives;
The righteousness which grace imputes,
And faith alone receives.

Whom heaven’s angelic host adores,
Was slaughtered for our sin;
The guilt, O Lord was wholly ours,
The punishment was Thine:
Our God in the flesh, to set us free,
Was manifested here;
And meekly bare our sins, that we
His righteousness might wear.

Imputatively guilty then
Our substitute was made,
That we the blessings might obtain
For which His blood was shed:
Himself He offered on the cross,
Our sorrows to remove;
And all He suffered was for us,
And all He did was love.

In Him we have a righteousness,
By God Himself approved;
Our rock, our sure foundation this,
Which never can be moved.
Our ransom by His death He paid,
For all His people giv’n,
The law He perfectly obeyed,
That they might enter Heav’n.

As all, when Adam sinned alone,
In his transgression died,
So by the righteousness of One,
Are sinners justified,
We to Thy merit, gracious Lord,
With humblest joy submit,
Again to Paradise restored,
In Thee alone complete.

Our souls His watchful love retrieves,
Nor lets them go astray,
His righteousness to us He gives,
And takes our sins away:
We claim salvation in His right,
Adopted and forgiv’n,
His merit is our robe of light,
His death the gate of Heav’n.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Barbeque Thursday

Today is known as Fat Thursday—the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday. This holiday is primarily celebrated in Poland and Germany. It is similar to Fat Tuesday, but involves the eating of large quantities of sweets, cakes, and other confections—including berliners which are large donuts with rose marmalade filling.

Perhaps more important is the Italian celebration of Giovedi Grasso that is more similar to the Greek custom of Tsiknopempti—Barbecue Thursday. Yes, today is the official day to consume copious amounts of barbeque. Strouds or Mickey Roos, anyone???

The Future of Literature?

The last post reminded me of this post from November 2005. In my effort to re-post relevant blogs, here it is again:

A British mobile phone company is rolling out their plan to make classic works of literature accessible and accessible by turning them into text messages. The complete works of Shakespeare will be available by April. However, the works lose a little something in their adjustment to modern technology.

Shakespeare thus becomes:
“Romeo, Romeo – wher4 Rt thou Romeo?”
“2b? Nt2? ???” (that’s from Hamlet in case you missed it)

Milton’s Paradise Lost becomes:
"devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus&strts war."
("The devil is kicked out of heaven because he is jealous of Jesus and starts a war.")

Austen does not fare much better with Mr. Darcy described as “fit&loadd” for “handsome and wealthy.”

A University College London English professor consulted on the project and said that “The educational opportunities it offers are immense,” and that the compressed format of text messages allowed them to “fillet out the important elements of plot.” “Take for example the ending to Jane Eyre—‘MadwyfSetsFyr2Haus.’ (Mad wife sets fire to house.) Was ever a climax better compressed?”

What is sadly missed, of course, is that great literature is much more than a compressed set of plot points. The purpose of literature is to read it, not to summarize the narrative. As Flannery O’Connor explains, the way a story is told with its unique choice of syntax, imagery, and use of language IS part of the theme and the purpose for the story. One could also sadly lament the loss of grammar and spelling skills. Art and beauty are not meant to be pragmatic.

The stated idea for this text messaging project is that this will be a valuable tool for studying for exams and a useful memory aid. I never realized that we would actually find ourselves in a situation in which students looking for a short-cut would find Cliff Notes or Spark Notes too much to read.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Future of Writing has reported the rise in usage of “IM” language in formal writing. Predictably, there are some educators who support the student’s creation of new language. I’m just reminded that subduing the earth and taking dominion often has nothing to do with being efficient or pragmatic.

You can read the full article here.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Worship Notes 9 February

• Beauty is best understood in its relationship and balance to goodness and truth—otherwise it can be trite, transient, trendy, temporary, deceptive, insubstantial, or gimmicky. There is a significance and weight to true beauty.

• The very fact that something is beautiful is an apologetic of the Gospel and of the realities of truth and goodness. All beauty is God’s beauty. In addition, beauty can be a winsome adornment, and it can be a challenging stumbling block. Beauty can also open the heart to that inexpressible sense of the transcendence of God that causes great desire for the Truth.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Modern versus Medieval Aesthetics

Our understanding of Medieval art is colored by our own modern expectations of art, and because we have lost the ability to understand and conceive of truly ecclesiastical art--art rendered and executed solely for the glory of God, within a covenantal community, for the edification of the church.

There exists a difference between medieval aesthetics and modern aesthetics. Modern aesthetics concerns itself with being:

Original: everything must be new in order to be valued and recognized
Clever: gains attention by gimmicks, manipulations, and “hooks”
Random: without a specific pattern, plan or connection
Innovative: fresh; always new—new form, new content, new shock
Acclaim: celebrity; workers who create for their own glory; the recognition of the artist is more important than the work
Independent: individual, artists work for individual gain
Spirituality: mysticism; higher planes; otherworldliness
Ethereal: insubstantial, frail, transient

The medieval, biblical view of aesthetics was interested those things of:

Order: tradition, following models
Craftsmanship: attention to detail; skill and learning; mastery of technique
Rooted: firm foundation in biblical truth and culture; rooted in faith and community
Inventive: creative; seeking new ways to express old and eternal truths
Anonymous: workers who created for God’s glory; the aim of the work is more important than who created it
Interdependence: communal; artists worked in community for the edification of the greater community
Spirit: worked within the framework of a Christian culture seeking to convey biblical and theological truth
Eternal: eternal truth more important than realism; stories out of time; timeless truth

These truths of medieval aesthetics stand in firm contradiction to our understanding and participation in the arts and beauty. We even see these modern concepts as the basis for much of worship. We will never be truly effective or able to engage culture until we are rooted in a biblical objective aesthetic that challenges the emptiness of modernity with God’s truth, beauty, and goodness.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Education: Why Music is More Important than the Other Arts

Although we have a sense that the arts are an important part of a child’s education, typically our approach has more to do with a secular understanding than a biblical approach. A smattering of knowledge about the great composers and artists usually suffices.

However, even our measure of who is “great” has much more to do with secular criteria than with a biblical model of artistic objectives.

The importance of music education is to train worshippers. God calls some to be artists; God calls all to worship. As such, the focus and aim of music education is to train and equip students to learn to read, understand, analyze, critique, and create music for the purpose of worshipping well in spirit and in truth. Music itself can be true—not just the lyrics. Since beauty is an attribute of God, ought we not to offer back to Him in worship that which is truly and objectively beautiful? As such, we need to better understand the nature of music to more fully assess its worth and objective value.

In order to that, we need to train students in music for a task greater than recognizing the melodies of symphonies. I love the arts and have taught art history and aesthetics for a number of years; however, to give equal weight to the visual arts and to music in education short changes our ability to worship well. The fact that we do not have a fully integrated concept of music in education is testimony to the triumph of Enlightenment principles.

For the sake of worship, we must restore music to its rightful and equal place in the “core” curriculum of our education.

Psalm 66:1-4 (ESV)
Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
All the earth worships you and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.”

The Order of Worship

When music is selected by style in order that it “speak to the worshiper” in a cultural sense or that it fulfills the subjective requirements of being music that “helps me to worship,” the music and the worship become self-indulgent, appealing to the needs and wants of the individual as opposed to focusing exclusively on God-–the sole object of worship. The music and structure of worship must be consistent with a Biblical objective standard of what God desires and with what is appropriate to enter his presence. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:28-29)

The medium of worship must fit the message in its execution and purpose. Truth should be stated in a manner worthy of the Truth, and the form of the worship is inseparable from its content. Therefore, we ought to carefully consider the congruous nature, philosophy, and worldview of the lyrics with music and of the other elements that comprise worship. This means that we will often not be in accord with current tastes, trends, and preferences; however, worship should elevate our thoughts beyond the temporal things of this world and to the throne of God.

Our God is a God of order, and our worship should reflect that divine attribute. As such, worship should be organized with a liturgy that reflects, encourages, and fosters a better understanding of our relationship with God. From the Call to Worship through the Eucharist, the worshipper will move from an exaltation of the nature of God, an understanding of God’s law and his inability to keep it, confession of sin and the personal need for a redeemer, a restoration into the fellowship of God and other believers, and a sending forth into the world as His representative sustained by the food of heaven. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. This is the flow of the gospel; this is the flow of worship.

Friday, February 2, 2007

I Don't Think So...

Merck and Co. is spending big bucks in an effort to get state legislatures to pass mandatory vaccination laws for their HPV vaccine. HPV is a cervical-cancer virus that is only transmitted sexually. The desire is to require the series of shots for 11 and 12 year old girls—prior to becoming sexually active. Texas Republican governor, Rick Perry, stated, “I look at this no different than vaccinating our children for polio. If there are diseases in our society that are going to cost us large amounts of money, it just makes good economic sense, not to mention the health and well being of these individuals to have those vaccines available.” Sales of the vaccine could be in the billions of dollars. Click here for the full story.

Worship Notes 2 February

• Beauty is an attribute of God and is therefore a theological issue. God is the standard of beauty as well as its source; therefore, there is an objective standard for what is beautiful. Aesthetics is the study of beauty and the ability to apprehend it. From a theological perspective, the Word of God is the rule by which we make aesthetic judgments. God speaks to the role of artists in the description He gives of the artists for the tabernacle: filled with the Spirit, ability, intelligence, knowledge, craftsmanship, and able to teach others. Good art and music should be the product of these types of characteristics.

• The cultural mandate to take dominion over and subdue the earth has direct application to the arts. Music, poetry, literature, dance, painting, sculpture, etc. are manifestations of dominion over sound, time, language, movement, color, etc.