Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Fallacy of Uniformity in Worship

One of the most common defenses for traditional worship is that it best expresses the catholicity of the church. It is argued that because traditional hymnody is tied to the church’s past, it is the best way for the present church to express its solidarity with the preceding generations. The argument is compelling for several reasons.
  • First, the Christian religion is more than any other religion tied to history. Its basis lies in the historical work of God with his people culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desire to remain linked to the church’s past is simply an outworking of the desire to remain vitally connected to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit in history.
  • Second, remaining grounded in the history of the church grants stability and unity in the midst of great cultural instability. Culture in America has been fragmented into isolated and competing subcultures. The church is either unable to adapt to the fluidity of society, or unwilling to compromise with those cultural expressions it finds either distasteful or sinful. Grounding worship in the church’s tradition avoids all the messiness involved in cultural engagement.

Whatever virtue these motives may hold, upon close examination, this reasoning falls short for several reasons.

  • First, traditional worship and hymnody fails to express the catholicity of the church as much as contemporary forms. One does not have to spend much time examining a hymnal to realize that the vast majority of the hymns were written in either the Reformation and post-Reformation period or the 18th and 19th century revival movements. While there are a few exceptions, the rule stands. Further, the music style is almost exclusively located in the white, Western European culture, whether that be of a classical or a revivalist genre. Rather than expressing the catholicity of the church, hymnody shuts out the majority of the church. The church has existed since its inception in Egypt and Palestine with its own rich cultural and liturgical heritage- none of which finds expression in traditional hymnody. There are currently more Christians in Africa than in North America and Europe combined. How are the cultural and musical contributions of Africa being recognized and celebrated in conservative, Western churches? For those within the Reformed tradition in particular, how is the shift of the center of Reformed theology from Europe and the United States to Africa and Asia (most notably Korea) being expressed in corporate worship? It seems that catholicity applies exclusively to dead Western Europeans.
  • Second, the argument against novelty based on church tradition has already been answered and rejected. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church argued against the “novelty” of the Protestants based on the necessity of the church’s unity. Calvin and the other Reformers responded that the catholicity of the church was not determined by external criteria such as organizational unity or intellectual submission to church tradition but was found in holding fast to the faith delivered to the church through the testimony of the prophets and apostles. The Reformers rightly argued that the unity of the church wasn’t determined by what was seen or heard, but by what was taught and believed. Worship that respects the catholicity of the church isn’t determined by externals, such as style, publication date and provenance; but on content.
  • Third, traditional worship’s inflexibility in light of changing and competing cultures contradicts the Biblical and apostolic pattern of cultural accommodation for the sake of mission. No one stated this more clearly than Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22 NET). Paul was not unique in his perspective, but was simply expressing the pattern God has always utilized in reaching out to his people. God spoke to Israel in its infancy adopting the surrounding Near Eastern cultural forms and patterns. As his people matured and their historical situation changed, God adopted the wisdom of Egypt and the legal forms and traditions of Assyria and Babylon. Even in the New Testament this pattern continued as the common language and the current literary forms and conventions of Hellenistic culture were utilized by Paul and the other New Testament authors to communicate meaningfully with the people they were charged to reach. The strongest demonstration of this pattern of God’s speech is the incarnate Word- a Second-Temple Jew, speaking as a Second Temple Jew to Second Temple Jews. The incarnation was not as a generic human, but as a specific human, fully accommodated to his specific time and place. The goal has never been elegance or refinement; but effective, accommodated communication with the current culture, and anything which opposed this goal was rejected, in spite of its pedigree. It was and is only Christ and him crucified which is to cause offence; and no element, whether of Jewish heritage or Gentile wisdom, classical refinement or contemporary relevance, has any claim to unalterable necessity. This fluidity has been witnessed throughout the Christian world as the Gospel has been able to adapt to vastly different peoples and situations throughout its history, and is the reason for the worldwide expansion of the Christian faith. This diversity does not militate against unity; but witnesses the power of God through the Gospel to unify humanity in its diversity as people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation worship the Lamb. Since God has not expressed a desire nor made a demand for monolithic worship, we should not hold uniformity as a criterion for Biblical, God-honoring worship; but rather we must be willing to speak in contemporary terms to the specific time and place God has placed each individual congregation.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Qohelet was right...

“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless; a chasing after the wind.” The Colt’s 2009 season is a powerful illustration of the truth of this observation. Consider the following:

  • On Week 16 Colt’s Coach Jim Caldwell and General Manager Bill Polian made the decision to sacrifice the perfect season against the New York Jets after winning the first 14 games of the regular season in order to protect and rest the starting players and test their depth. After the devastating, season-ending injury to receiver Wes Welker of the Patriots, the sacrifice of perfection for protection seemed wise and warranted. The speed and energy, particularly of the Colt’s defense, in the win over Baltimore seemed to remove any lingering resentment over the final 2 regular season losses. But what good is it to sacrifice perfection, a cornerstone of the Colt’s philosophy, for a loss in the game for which perfection was abandoned?
  • The Colts had the most come-from-behind wins of any team in the league this season, but what does that statistic mean in the light of their failure to win from behind in the Superbowl? Beating the Dolphins, Miami, Houston, New England, Jacksonville after trailing is great, but what does it matter when you can’t come back in the one game where victory is the only option?
  • Payton Manning had the highest passer rating going into the Superbowl of 116.0 during the fourth quarter, prior to the loss to the Saints, having thrown only one interception in the fourth quarter. Ask Brett Farve about throwing the game-winning pass to the opposing team in the final minutes of your team’s season; he has a lot of experience. Both Manning and Farve had great accuracy and success in the final quarter of the game this season, but both of their mistakes in the final minutes of their teams final game lead to Tracy Porter sealing the Saints victory.
  • It could be said it is an honor to play in the Superbowl, but answer this question, who lost the Superbowl three years ago? Of course, diehard Colts fans know the answer to the question, but how many others? To the victor goes the spoils, and to the vanquished, oblivion. How long before all the achievements of the 2009 Colts are as memorable as that of the 2007 Bears?

“If only for this life we have hope, we are to pitied more than all others.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stupid Rock Musicians

“The Flame Deluge”

I feel that I was meant for something more;
My curse, this awful power to unmake.
And ever since you found your taste for war,
You’ve forced me onto those whose lives you’d take.

While Guernica in peaceful valley lay,
And Dresden dreamed of anything but death,
The day was turned to night, and night to day;
You let me loose upon their fragile flesh.

And so I hid among the smallest things;
You found me there and ferried me above.
The flame deluge is waiting in the wings;
The smallest thread holds back the second flood.

And who will stand to greet the blinding light;
It’s lonely when there’s no one left to fight.

“Kings Upon the Main”

This lesson you’d do well not to forget.
Your life could be the one it’s wisdom saves,
At sea, when you’re beleaguered and beset,
On every side by strife of wind and waves.

Despite the best of maps and bravest men,
For all their mighty names and massive forms,
There’ll never be and there has never been
A ship or fleet secure against the storms.

When kings upon the main have clung to pride,
And held themselves as masters of the sea,
I’ve held the down beneath the crushing tide
Till they have learned that no one masters me.

But grace can still be found within the gale;
With fear and reverence, raise your ragged sail.

“Silver Wings”

From tender years you took me for granted.
But still I deigned to wander through your lungs.
While you were sleeping soundly in your bed,
(Your drapes were silver wings, your shutters flung)

I drew the poison from the summer’s sting,
And eased the fire out of your fevered skin.
I moved in you and stirred your soul to sing;
And if you’d let me I would move again.

I’ve danced ‘tween sunlit strands of lover’s hair;
Helped form the final words before your death,
I’ve pitied you and plied your sails with air;
Gave blessing when you rose upon my breath.

And after all of this I am amazed,
That I am cursed far more than I am praised.

“Child of Dust”

Dear prodigal, you are my son and I
Supplied you not your spirit, but your shape.
All Eden’s wealth arrayed before your eyes;
I fathomed not you wanted to escape.

And though I only ever gave you love,
Like every child you’ve chosen to rebel.
Uprooted flow’rs and filled the holes with blood;
Ask not for whom they tool, the solemn bells.

A child of dust, to mother now return;
For every seed must die before it grows.
And though above the world may toil and turn,
No prying spade will find you here below.

No safe beneath their wisdom and their feet,
Here I will teach you truly how to sleep.

-Written by Dustin Kensrue from Alchemy Index Vols. I-IV

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Is Exclusive Psalmody an Option?

Any serious examination of the Biblical teaching on music must deal at the beginning with the question of exclusive Psalmody. While this question provides little insight into the issue of musical form, it is vital to answer the more central question of content. Does accepting the Bible as normative for Christian worship entail limiting the content used in worship to that found in Scriptural text itself? I would like to argue that the phenomenon of the Psalms itself nullifies the contention of those who hold to exclusive Psalmody.

Briefly stated, the Psalter of the Old Testament is a varied compilation of timely material. A casual, surface examination demonstrates the variety found in the Psalter. Aside from the collection of Psalms attributed to various authors, the Psalter appears to be composed from various earlier collections of material. Consider the note at the end of the second book of Psalms, “This concludes the prayers of David, son of Jesse” (Psalm 72:20). While Psalms attributed to David are predominant in this section, other Psalms from the sons of Korah, from Asaph, and even Solomon, to which Psalm this note is attached. Further David’s Psalms are found later in the Psalter, the most notable being the vital Christotelic Psalm 110. What this note in all probability signifies the end of a previous collection of Davidic Psalms incorporated into the larger collection by the compilers of the Psalter. A similar self-contained unit can be seen in the Psalms of Ascent found in 120-134. Perhaps also the final Hallelujah Psalms concluding the Psalter were originally an independent self-contained unit. All this points to the great variety of material the compliers of the Psalter had to select from when choosing the individual Psalms or groups of Psalms to include in their collection. We would be mistaken to conclude that they chose these 150 Psalms because they were the only songs available, or even the only ones used in worship during their time period. The differing endings between the Masoretic text of Psalms and the various other concluding Psalms in the Old Greek traditions suggest that the collection was not absolutely set even in the period directly preceding the New Testament era.

A close examination of the individual Psalms themselves explains the expansion of collections. Simply put, what the Psalms are at a basic level demanded their continued composition. Psalms are individual or corporate responses to God’s varied providence. At an individual level, the Psalms of David obviously display this pattern. The Psalms attributed to David vary from individual laments for defeat, betrayal, depression, and confession to triumphant hymns celebrating victory. The frequent connections made in the prescript to incidences in David’s life (whether these were original or added by a later redactor is an irrelevant question), give a fuller and deeper understanding of a Biblical and Divinely sanctioned and inspired response to the situations God brings his servant. The same pattern is visible on the larger, corporate level, whether of joyful corporate worship or despairing lament at the calamity of the exile. What makes the Psalms unique is that they are the response of the individual or community in covenant with YHWH. It is natural that as the covenant people’s experience with their God develops their response to that experience continually finds expression. After the collection of the Biblical Psalter was nearly set, this pattern was clearly continued. Early collections of Psalms from the Pharisees and the Qumran community remain, and it is impossible to estimate how much other material was in use, but lost to time. In many instances, the extra-canonical Psalms read so similarly to their Biblical counterparts that they are impossible to distinguish. It is also impossible to demonstrate that the extra-canonical Psalms were excluded from the formal, corporate worship of the people. A standard collection of songs for the Jewish community was not seen, even by the more conservative elements of Jewish society, as a limit to their expression of their faith and life as God’s covenant people.

Of course, it is easy to counter that the distinction lies in the inspiration of the Biblical canon opposed to the Psalms authored solely by human impulse. However, this distinction does not stand. It was not only the Pharisees or the Qumran sectarians who expressed their distinctive faith in the pattern of the Biblical Psalter, but the community formed around the confession of Jesus as the Christ that followed this same pattern. This is only natural, understanding the pattern that the Psalms set forth. The people of God, experiencing the presence, deliverance and victory of God in the person and work of Christ, express their distinctive faith in song, as they had done throughout their history. Whole songs can be found in Revelation. Fragments of the songs remain throughout the New Testament, most obviously in Colossians 1, Philippians 2. It is most reasonable to presume that Paul did not write these songs de novo, but was using songs commonly in use in the early Christian communities. Perhaps other passages, such as John 1 betray the remnant of the early church’s worship. All this evidence clearly leads Paul’s statement that the church sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” was not limited by the Hebrew Psalter. Rather, the apostolic church’s praise of God, following the trajectory of the Hebrew Psalter, was alive with their continued reflection on Christ’s finished work and present reign fueled by presence of the Spirit.

The application of this pattern is the basis for the church’s hymnody. The justification for “non-inspired” songs is not found in scattered proof-text from the New Testament, but is found in the nature and the pattern of the Psalms themselves. In this sense, the Psalter does regulate the worship of the New Testament church, not by limiting the content of the church’s expression in worship, but by guiding it in how to properly express its faith (more on this point in a later post). The Old Testament Psalms perfectly represent the breadth of experience and the depth of emotion that the New Testament community and individual experiences, as well as the tension between the reality of covenant communion and the consummation of covenant fulfillment. This pattern also demands that God’s covenant people continue to express their experience of defeat and triumph, of joy and despair in new songs, until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, when the victory of the Lamb will inspire the saints to compose again new songs of praise to God.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Excursions in Exodus- Beginning Blessings

As an attempt to post more regularly, I am beginning a series of posts on the book of Exodus. I am leading a study on Exodus at a local nursing home, so I will adapt my study notes to use as posts. My goal will be to explore Exodus through a redemptive-historical perspective. Below is the first, brief study.


Exodus begins where Genesis left off, but the situation has changed radically. A new pharaoh rules takes the throne who has no memory of Joseph and how he had preserved Egypt from disaster during the famine. The honor once accorded Joseph’s family was rescinded, and now the sons of Jacob were made slaves in state building projects.

The family of Jacob, the clan of Israel, was not just another ancient near eastern people-group suffering under unfortunate circumstances. This was the people of God, bound to the creator of heaven and earth by his solemn bond and covenant. God had promised Abraham that he would “bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” Their current plight seems on the surface to be a direct contradiction to God’s promise. Has God abandoned his people? Is the Fear of Abraham impotent in the face of the gods of the Egyptians?

In spite of the desperate condition of God’s people, Exodus 1 is clear that God had not abandoned or forgotten about his people. God was with Israel, and he was blessing them even in their bondage. The author show this by describing the incredible growth of Israel in Egypt. Compare the statement from Exodus describing Israel’s growth with God’s blessing on creation in Genesis 1. “The Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.” “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” The growth of Israel was not an accident of nature; was not the natural genealogical progression of a clan, but was the direct blessing of God upon his people. God was blessing Israel, and it was manifest in their amazing birthrate. The Lord was fulfilling through Israel his initial creation blessing on mankind.

The growth of Israel is also a result of his special, covenantal blessing. God had promised Abraham that “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” God began to fulfill his promise by blessing his people, and causing them to expand, even in the midst of their exile. God blessing for the children of Abraham was not only in the general realm of creation, but specifically redemptive. In fact, by God’s fulfillment of his special, redemptive blessings ensured that the general, creational blessing could be extended beyond Israel to all nations. God ends his blessing on Abraham saying, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”