“God, which knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that for man’s frailness we cannot always stand uprightly; Grant to us the health of body and soul that all those things which we suffer for sin, by thy help we may well pass and overcome; through Christ our Lord.”
Archive for January 2011
A few thoughts on singing, and particularly singing in the church, prompted by a second listen to Volume 88 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal:
First, most people would agree that singing is a form of culture; but what we mean by “culture” has evolved dramatically in the last half-century, which in turn has changed the way we think about singing. In older usage, a culture was a set of traditions and forms among a particular people with a distinctive history; in more recent usage, culture is largely a conglomerate of consumable products (“pop culture” means basically stuff that is popular, i.e., what sells). Bach’s music, for example, was part of a Western culture that predated and outlived him; Bono’s performances are part of marketable culture driven by consumer demand. Celtic folk music was once an expression of a people and their history, the sort of thing one would find played and sung by the locals at a pub in a certain part of the world; Dropkick Murphys are “one of the best-known rock bands in the world, thanks in part to their ability to tap into the working-class and sports fan culture that permeates Boston and the New England area but even more so due to their reputation for phenomenal live shows” (this from their official website). The band has taken something from what was once a culture (in the older sense of the word) and gainfully commodified it for the international market (i.e., placed it in the conglomerate of pop “culture”).
Second, in the older understanding of a culture, singing was not predominately a spectator sport; it was not mostly something a crowd watched while a few performed. Rather, a culture had its songs, and the people in that culture sang them, together. This was true of the biblical Hebrews (e.g., Ps 137:3–4), it is true today in many cultures of the southern hemisphere, and it was true not long ago in the United States (one thinks of the forgotten genre of songs called Americana).
These are my observations, for which no one else is to be blamed; but now let me assume their validity and apply them to the church.
When the average North American evangelical thinks of singing in worship, he or she thinks in the idiom of popular “culture,” that is, he or she thinks as a consumer. This is true not only of worshippers who expect to watch and listen to a praise band up front (whether such a spectator event qualifies as “worship” in any biblical sense of the word is a question I will not pause to address here); it is true also of those who expect to participate in congregational singing. The driving issue is whether “I like” this or that song, whether this music suits my tastes and meets my needs/wants. But we think this way about music and song because we think this way about culture in general. What is really radical to us is the idea that we should embrace certain songs – that we should learn not only to sing them, but also to love them – because they are a part of a culture to which we are coming (or better, in which we find ourselves) as God’s people. The Psalms are the songs of “our people,” and so we should love them, and sing them. Christians in the Reformation tradition are part of a heritage, a culture, that has bequeathed to us a wonderful corpus of music, and we should be learning it (not to mention songs of Christendom predating the Reformation, and some of much later origin). If we were honest, however, this makes about as much sense to us as the idea that we should sing certain songs because they are “American.” Says who? What if I don’t like these songs? It doesn’t fit our sovereignty complex with respect to “our” music. Who has the right to tell us what we must listen to, or what we must sing?
The question might be turned around: Who asked you whether you wanted to be an American? Or a Westerner, or an Easterner? African or Irish or Bolivian? And who asked you whether you wanted to be born among God’s covenant people? Short answer: nobody. These are your people, this is your heritage, your culture, your story. And the songbook comes with it. Which means that in the church we should pick up our songbook, dust it off, and start singing. Together. With gusto. A joyful noise, and all that. Thank God He’s the only judge here; all the others are over at American Idol.
“Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities, stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Christ our Lord.”
I post this without comment, though much might profitably be said:
“Baptism was instituted . . . as a sign of [the] true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 1.154)
I dream of a place where there is quiet
And the wind whispers gently in the green
Of a wood, and the stream that flows near by it
Chuckles softly of the places it has been.
I dream of a place where deer are grazing
In the ferns under canopy of mist
Till the birds stir to greet the daylight’s hazing
And the dew and dawn have met again and kissed.
I dream of a place where one may linger
And the hours passing ever are unmarked
By the tick-tock of time’s unfeeling finger
And it matters not how long since one embarked.
I dream of a place where one can listen
Of a place where the world is listening, too
Far away from where baubles gleam and glisten
And the soulless things that men are wont to do.
I dream of a place where sheep are feeding
In a wood in the midst of garden land
Where a King gives to all what all are needing
And the grain and wine flow freely from His hand.
I dream of a place of wondrous pasture
Full of strength for the weary and distressed
Where the King says to all His people, “Cast your
Every burden onto Me, and be at rest.”
A primary reason why many of us need to be spending more time in the presence of our Lord is not so much that we need to be reminded of His majesty as that we need to be reminded of His joy.
“Almighty and everlasting God, which dost govern all things in heaven and earth: mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and grant us thy peace all the days of our life.”
We’ve been talking in Bible school the past two weeks about what it means to be the church in the world but not of it (read: the Christ and culture problem). Here’s a brilliant example of cultural engagement that hasn’t lost any of its Christian teeth.
“Lord we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same.”
“O God, which by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only begotten son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Christ our Lord.”