A Dovetailed Life

The things that interest us weave us together to create who we are.

Tag: Christianity

Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism

ec·u·men·i·cal

adjective

1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimedat achieving universal Christian unity and church unionthrough international interdenominational organizations thatcooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenicalmarriage.

In the United Methodist Church, we have a hymnal.  Every 20 years or so another one pops up, with great new hymns,  great old hymns, and…unfortunately…some of the same old, really bad hymns.  The church is trying to be ‘progressive’ (whatever that means), so we have seen little books like ‘The Faith We Sing’ and ‘Worship and Song’ pop up as well.  These are the technologically limited offerings aimed at keeping up with the rapid rate of song creation in the Church these days.  ‘Worship and Song,’ printed last year, has only now included “How Great is Our God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (Open the Eyes of My Heart was written in 1997, How Great is Our God in 2004).

When I purchased my copy of ‘Worship and Song’ at Cokesbury, the sales associate told me that this was the “first expandable hymnal!”  I asked her how the binding to the book played a role in its expandability and she gave me the scrunched-nose face. Technologically, these books have been limited.

Interestingly enough, in some Christian circles, this technological barrier has played a huge role in keeping the churches singing the same songs they’ve been singing for ages. In others, they have ignored the technological implications completely.  Many Christians are growing up in church environments (that alone is something to celebrate) and do not realize that Christians used to sing songs out of books that they held in their hands instead of on screens (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is something to celebrate).

Long story short: music in the Church is rapidly changing.  Some people are changing it, some are avoiding it.  Others, like the United Methodist Church in large part, avoided it for 20 years or so and are just now trying to catch up. The last category of churches feel a little like RIM and Nokia do now when it comes to smart phones:  late to the game inevitably will hurt, no matter your customer loyalty.

Not long ago I presented a hymnal to a student of mine on which her name was imprinted.  I said to her, “These are the songs of our tradition.” Ever since that moment, I’ve been thinking about what I meant by that statement.  Did I mean that these are the ONLY songs of our tradition?  Did I mean that these are the songs our of tradition and OUR TRADITION alone?  What is it that I meant?  Does that make the songs outside of our hymnal NOT part of our tradition?

In seminary we talk a lot about the music we sing being formative for the Christian journey.  We sing songs pertinent to the liturgical context we are in, usually having something to do with the morning’s message.  We pride ourselves: the hymns we sing aren’t, and shouldn’t be, fluff.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has something going for it here.  Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote hundreds of poems.  As the search for a ‘Wesleyan’ identity is set before us in the UMC, a return to Charles’s lyrics are usually appreciated.  Whenever I bring the topic up in UMC circles, eyes light up.  “Yes! That’s the way it should be!” they seem to say.  Methodism was blessed from its beginnings with theologically based hymns and Methodists far and wide don’t want to lose that.

This isn’t the whole story though.  We sing songs every Sunday in Methodist Churches that were written by non-Methodist writers. Heck, we sing songs in church on Sundays that were written by the Gaithers.  We sing songs written by Calvinist predestinarians.  We sing all kinds of music in the UMC, no matter how much we pride ourselves in being ‘Wesleyan.’

I was thinking about all of this, trying to put these pieces together in my head, so that I could sort out the proper course of action. Then I had this thought: We’re not seeing this hangup with many who are writing music for the masses today.

No, in fact, these hangups of being strictly ‘Wesleyan’ don’t matter to many.  The people who are constantly writing new, exciting, progressive, worship music are largely from non-denominational churches. These churches usually have some sort of vague mission statement and clearly defining themselves is not something they do!  The popular people writing music these days for the ‘contemporary worship’ setting are largely tied to movements.  Is Hillsong a movement or a church?  Yes.  Is Passion a movement or a church?  Yes.  What do these movements do? A little bit of everything.  Many of these groups don’t even use the word “church.” Being sticklers for quality, theologically sound music is simply not a priority.  They want music that is exciting and engaging, and the lyrical composition can be what it is.

The question then becomes: is the work coming out of these ‘movements’ unifying the church at all?  In other words, if those producing material are not hung up on staying true to their founders, are they free to write music that spans across denominational barriers? Are these songs acting, whether intended for it or not, as a form of ecumenism?

These songs, those written within the past 20 years for ‘contemporary’ worship environments are criticized all the time for being too “simplistic” or “shallow” in their theology. But it occurs to me that this  very criticism might actually be what makes these songs work across the barriers.  Charles Wesley wrote songs that were deeply explicit in their lyrics, calling out church heretics, heretical leanings, and teachings that were against his views of Christianity.  He even, from time to time, called out people by name.

We simply aren’t seeing this in today’s music.  We’re singing statements about loving Jesus, about Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus saving us.  While they might still be criticized for aligning themselves with Jesus and little else of the Trinity, these are overarching statements that don’t necessarily apply to any specific denomination or tradition.

It seems to me that it is BECAUSE of the more universal nature of the lyrics within recent songwriting that these songs are becoming forms of ecumenism.  These songs are popular, easy to sing (choruses and refrains repeat constantly) and when played well, tug at the emotions of those singing them.  In a sense, these songs are unifying the church.  These songs are played in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, and most prominently in non-denominational churches far and wide.

So, are they unifying? Yeah, I guess, in a way they are.  These songs are being sung all over, much like hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” “It Is Well” and “Come Thou Fount” were before.  Generalized lyrics and easy to sing melodies.  They surpass and tear down walls of division that have been placed there by theological and political arguments for 2000 years. To me, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

See, the technological barriers of printing books has kept many denominations and generations infused with the idea that if it’s not in our hymnal, it’s no good.  This has allowed for boards and agencies to curate the contents of our singing, too.  But, these groups that work past those technological barriers (we don’t print books anymore), are able to stretch beyond that. And, because of that freedom, they’ve explored new realms of communal singing.

The interesting question is, what if true, studied theologians had done this rather than the guy down the street who played guitar?  Would that have changed the outcome?  Could we have had a more universal set of songs that were ALSO theologically grounded?  I don’t think so.  I think the “shallowness” of much of what we see set to worship music today should get credit for helping me attend a non-denominational service and know the music.

Contemporary worship style gets a lot of crap for the way in which it exists. All I’m saying is that its music (one of the biggest reasons it has been successful) deserves a look. A critique, too, perhaps.  But, definitely, a look.

Just some random thoughts.

-B

Why Christian Music Is Essential

I literally remember the moment.

It was on a school field trip and all of my peers had their Walkmen and assortment of CDs with them. One of the greatest pastimes of such trips was, as kids do, compare and contrast the assortment of CDs each friend had brought with them. I remember my friends having CDs of The Smashing Pumpkins, Blink 182, Smashmouth, Green Day, Nelly, and many other secular albums that were often stamped with that ‘my mom doesn’t know I have this’ EXPLICIT stamp.

My collection of CDs, though, was quite different. It was made up of dcTalk, Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, Steven Curtis Chapman, and many others. I loved that music. It was the music on the radio I listened to and I listened to it constantly. That fact alone was not enough though to keep me from being embarrassed when I was around the kids with the ‘cooler’ music. I was so embarrassed that I even moved dcTalk’s albums to the front of my CD binder (remember those things?) because their album artwork would at least look cooler than Michael W. Smith’s. The horror as a youngster of being caught listening to music that wasn’t ‘cool’ was more than I could bear.

I liked my music. I just wasn’t proud of it.

One peer even said to me (I remember this word for word), “I like the music to Christian music, but the words suck.” To which I responded, “Oh yeah, I only listen to the music anyway. I don’t listen to the words.”

Wait, what?

What kind of an idiot was I? You don’t listen to the words!?!? What a MORON!!! Of course you listen to the words, Bryant! That’s the whole point!!!

But, you know, saying that would have meant that I submitted to the lyrics that he said, “sucked.” I would not be caught doing such a thing as that.

(In seminary we talk all the time about pop Christian lyrics ‘sucking.’ But, we speak of them in terms of theological shallowness, not in terms of whether they are cool or not.)

I really was stupid. Either that, or I didn’t realize the truth behind our faith. The truth is that everything we do forms who we are. The way we worship in church forms us into who we are. The things we watch on television form us into who we are. The things we read form us into who we are. The same is true of the music we listen to. These outside influences affect the way that we interact with God, each other, and surrounding communities.

This is why Christian music is essential. We need something that defines the Church and the disciples of Christ lest we risk allowing our children (and, let’s be honest, us) to be influenced by other non-Christian, non-Holy influences. I no longer worry about whether listening to music that speaks the Gospel is cool or not, because I know that what I listen to is forming me into who I am. And, forgive me, but I’d rather that influence be something inspired by Christ rather than the sinful ways of the world.

Therefore, I give praise for the witness that Christian music, in whatever form, style, or genre, provides.

The next step, as we often lament in seminary, is to actually say something. “Falling in love with Jesus” was ok when we first realized the issue of American music. Now, it’s time that we take this formative aspect of music one step further and use it to form disciples who can actually articulate something theological. Our next step is to recover the depth that many of our founders clung to.

Wouldn’t that be something!

-B

The Greatest Love of All

I’m not one of those people who, when a celebrity passes away, writes on Facebook something along these lines, “People die every day. Why does the world stop when these overdosing celebs die?” I try not to judge people who do, but it’s not something I’ve felt the need to say. And so, I write here not to disparage Whitney Houston’s name, simply to call attention to the shaping and forming of our culture through music (which, arguably, music does).

People look up to many celebrities. Singers look up to singers. Athletes look up to athletes. Comedians look up to comedians.  Perhaps it’s because they’re simply good at their craft. Perhaps it’s because they see a little bit of themselves, and a lot of their potential inside of the talent of these celebrities.  Perhaps it’s a way to live a life they’ll never have, vicariously.

I’ve refrained from commenting much on Whitney Houston’s death. I’m saddened by the reality of her life, her dependence on substances to counteract an abusive marriage, and a talented soul lost from this world.  For many obvious reasons, her death reminds me a lot of Michael’s death and that only brings sad feelings to my heart. It’s such a shame.

However, I was watching YouTube this afternoon and came across this tribute by PS22 (who I have included man times here and on Facebook; I think they often do a stand up job at recreating pop tunes):

 

They do a phenomenal job here and are well led.  The female soloist is something else, too.

Every pop artist has their ballad that stands out for them.  It often separates them from the rest of the artists and solidifies their place in history as a phenomenal singer. Whitney, as I see it, had two: “I Will Always Love You” and the one above, “The Greatest Love of All.”

What’s most interesting to me is that Whitney set a place for black singers such as Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce to become as accepted and popular by mainstream media and popularity as they have been.  Whitney came out of church, gospel-singing background and blew the world away with her incredible range, passion, and natural phrasing. She had a huge voice and knew how to use it. Her level of stardom, in many ways, is untouched.

But, if we are going to see this song, “The Greatest Love of All” as a song that was defining for her career and thereby defining for our culture, I think it’s important to examine the text for what it is, especially because of its placement of a bold statement within the title. The Greatest Love of All. If that statement doesn’t shock you into listening to it, you ought to wake up. The song title makes you want to listen to find out what it is she is going to define as the ‘greatest love.’

She starts by singing, 

I believe that children are our future

Teach them well and let them lead the way

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

I’m tracking. I agree. Show the children the beauty they possess inside? Yes, Whitney. (Whitney didn’t write the song, but she’s singing it so I’m going to speak as if she agrees with the text.  Especially because the story is that she fought for the chance to record it against Clive Davis’s wishes.)

But then, we start to separate. She sings:

 

Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be

 

Pride is a weird thing for me.  Our Christian tradition teaches that pride is a bad thing. Our American tradition teaches that pride is how you get somewhere in life.  Without confidence in what you do, in America, it is hard to succeed. The song assumes that pride makes things easier.  If I’m confident and prideful in what I do, life becomes easier. This is a humanist message, not a Gospel message. This is reliance on the individual, rather than reliance on the grace of God.

 

Everybody’s searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me

 

I assume that because Whitney desired to sing this song that these lines, perhaps more than any other within this piece, resonated with her. It, to me, shows two things: a reliance on herself (obviously), and a direct rejection of any Christian role model (i.e. Jesus).  I appreciate the honesty within the lyrics, but the lyrics suggest a solution that is not Christian (remember, the tradition that Whitney was raised in) in any realm. Reliance on self? Once again, this is a humanist argument. Our hope is that a born-again Christian would have someone who fulfilled their needs, Jesus. And, with that, the Church.

 

She continues:

 

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

 

This is almost at the crux of the song. This continues to emphasize this complete and utter reliance on the self. More than that, though, the use of the term “believe” makes this a stronger position. It may not quite reach the lengths of spirituality, but it’s clear: the writer of the song thinks that if you believe in yourself and have dignity, you might not always succeed, but you will be…better. This is an American idea to be sure, but seems to stand in complete conflict with the Christian message. Indeed, Christians are to walk in Jesus’s shadows.

 

But there’s more to this line before we move on. I read these lines to be an “us against the world” type argument.  This is intriguing to me because that has many parallels to the argument of Christianity. We have a better way of life, you do not. Come join us and put your faith, hope, and trust in the Savior of the world. This message: if I put my faith, trust, and hope in myself…and believe in myself…then I’ll have a better way of life than the world. The world may be out to get me, but that’s ok…I have myself. This, again, emphasizes where the trust is placed. Christianity claims Christ. This song claims the self.

 

Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all

 

And here we are. The definition of the ‘greatest love of all.’

 

Friends, learning to love yourself is not, as I see it, the greatest love of all. The greatest love of all is the grace of God. The grace that is poured out on a broken humanity that confesses its sins and seeks to live in communion with Christ’s offering.

 

The song, for the listeners, is a lie. It spreads a reliance on humanity, on the self, and the good works of said people. It delivers a message of hope that resides completely within the self. It places trust on the individual. And because of that, it is in direct opposition to the heart of the Christian message: Jesus is Lord.

 

“But Bryant,” you say. “This song was written by someone struggling with cancer who may or may not have been a Christian. She was in the midst of a crisis and writing honestly about where to place her trust. In her against the world, she finds the strength within herself to survive. How beautiful of a message?!?!”

 

I respond: This is not a beautiful message. And it is in direct conflict with where we should be.

 

The movement towards a trust in the individual rather than a higher power is a move that the Enlightenment granted humanity and may never ever be able to be taken away. Songs like this destroy the Christian message and focus: Christ. They enable humans to understand that they’re able to battle whatever they’re fighting (whether it is cancer or something less tragic) simply by believing in themselves.

 

The Christian Scriptures teach us that when humanity ran from God and placed their hope and trust in other things it always went worse than if they had placed their trust in God in the first place. This is a message that obviously wasn’t written into Whitney’s narrative, because I imagine this song would have struck a different chord with her than it did.  It’s sad. And, inevitably, the trust that Whitney placed on herself and the things of this world came to cause her death. It’s sad, very, very sad.

 

I do believe that children are our future. If we teach them well and let them lead the way, we are in for a wonderful ride. But, the beauty within them that this song talks about OUGHT to refer to the beauty that God placed in God’s children, not the beauty within their humanity. Humanity is fallen, God is holy. Only a trust and belief in God can give true hope and love. That is the greatest love of all.

 

Why does this matter? Because music shapes our culture.  Therefore, music shapes us. I’d prefer that Christianity define “The Greatest Love of All,” not Whitney. 

 

Lord, help our unbelief.

 

-B

Music in the Church – A Series

The facts are simple.

They can be boiled down to this: the Church, as an all encompassing body of believers, is declining in influence and popularity, in general, world-wide. The mainline denominations have less than 50 years left at their rate of decline and the “growing” churches among the world are not growing anymore. When “growing” churches can be named, because they are so few and far between, we know that we have a problem; we shouldn’t be able to name the churches that are growing.

In general, religion is dying. While it seems to be growing in African countries and tribes, it is declining in Europe and America, places where lots of money, power, and world influence are still held. It is sometimes losing to “spirituality” or “divine relationship.” The decline of organized Christianity will, by definition, lead to a loss of Christians. Less Christians might lead to less accountability. Less accountability often leads to weaker discipleship. Weaker discipleship allows the sinful world, not God, to win.

We are to be comforted, though, because we know that in the end God does win. However, I often fear that we are forgetting Jesus’s commands to go and make disciples.

As far as the Church is concerned, I think I’ve come to the realization that the Church needs a revitalization movement. We’ve had several successful ones in our history, and there’s not reason to think that God wouldn’t bless a faithful one even today. Within that movement, we’re going to need leaders. We’re going to need followers. We’re going to need ministers. We’re going to need missionaries. We’re going to need disciples.

And, we’ll need some practical things as well.

We’ll need new, creative, innovative, relevant, contextual, powerful ways to reach the world. We’ll have to be ahead of the world, reflecting the ultimate Creator, rather than behind the world, simply copying what they do.

I imagine that we’ll need some leaders that will attract followers with their charisma and gifts. But I don’t think this movement will be led by only key leaders (what movement ever has?). No, I think this movement will need everyone; all hands will need to be on deck.

One of the gorgeous things about the Church is how diverse we are…we have so many people with so many talents, passions, and gifts. We’ll need them all.

So, here is my thought: Let’s stop talking about it. Let’s just start it. It’s already too late.

The movement is beginning, so let’s start.

Throughout reflection, the Church has to find within each of its individuals a sense of place, a sense of fit, a sense of call. The area of which I feel I have been impassioned and gifted is music.

The point is often made: music is not the reason people come to church. While I’d often be inclined to disagree, I’ll forego that opportunity to make a larger point: music serves a higher purpose than to get people to come to Church. Whether or not people come because of music is irrelevant. I believe that if we have quality, solid music, the details will often take care of themselves.

When people attend a church service, questions that are often asked are, “What songs did you sing?” or “How was the choir?” or “Is the service ‘contemporary’ or ‘traditional’?” These questions are indicative of the situation of music in the Church. It matters to people.

Music is, as I see it, one of the most integral parts of the Church as it stands today. It is Biblical, traditional, formational, communal, along with many other things. It serves to worship God, it serves to create disciples, and it serves to create fellowship. Music is a magical thing that challenges perspectives, opens eyes, implants happiness, and encourages hope. It’s often empowering and bold.

Last week, I attended a conference that tried hard to be cool and to reinvigorate a livelihood into the United Methodist Church. So, having thought about some of my thoughts above, I went to a a workshop on music ministry. I thought’d be a good reflection time. The lady who led it was nice, intelligent, talented, and very talkative. There were all kinds of students there. There were practiced, studied musicians. There were diva-like “worship leaders.” There were hipster, tight-jeaned guitarists. There were classical snobs. We talked for about an hour about random things, mostly having to do with the practicalities of organizing a music team, rehearsing them, and some about leading music for worship. All in all, it was an ok workshop.

But that was my issue: it was just ok. It wasn’t mind-blowing. We didn’t talk about writing new music. We didn’t think creatively. We didn’t even really discuss why Christians sing. We just talked about how cool or sucky our band was and how to pray with our group. Then we left.

And I left the room knowing there had to be something more. There had to something more to our approach. I left the room feeling as if we were just sitting in a rut, trying to push ahead while the dirt just kept us back. And I realized this (probably aided by our worship service experiences throughout the weekend): We’re faking it. We’re faking it really badly. And we aren’t growing from it; all we are doing is keeping from dying.

So that’s what I hope to explore throughout a small series here on this blog. I’m going to be posting over the next week and organizing my thoughts into three different posts and categories, explaining why I think we do what we do and what good it is going to do for a dying church.

I often don’t like using violent language, but I feel as if this fits: We aren’t on the offensive, we are on the defensive. I can’t think of a single point in history where those on the defensive changed the world because they intended to.

It’s time to take the offense, and because it’s one of the only things I know, I’m starting with music.

I hope to cover things like:

  • Why do we sing?
  • Is music foundational for the future of the Church?
  • Is music for the Church ever-changing?
  • What do we sing?
  • What’s a ‘good’ song for worship?
  • Why do we use terms like “hymn” and “praise song” and what are their connotations?
  • Who is writing quality material in 2011?
  • What historical church material is worth retaining?
  • What movements have progressed the Church positively?

…along with many other nuances of music ministry.

As is always the case with me, you’ll hear my opinions and observations, and those often change from time to time.

It is, though, something we should be talking about, and I’m ready to get going on it. This dead time within the Church is killing us.

Follow along? I hope so.

-B

Ten Years Later: Thoughts on Christianity in America

I was in second period band when someone from the front office of the school came into the room, whispered something in the band director’s ear and then announced to the class that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. She began her statement by saying, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but our country is under attack as two passenger jets have hit the World Trade Center in New York City.”

It’s funny the things you remember so perfectly. I feel like I even remember the temperature of the room.

I also remember this well: George Bush standing with firefighters and his bullhorn saying, “The people who hit these buildings will hear all of us soon!” According to his book, he said this in a response to someone in the crowd shouting, “We can’t hear you!”

Chills. I got, and still do get, chills.

Retaliation. There’s got to be some sort of inner (almost definitely sinful) human desire to get someone back who has wronged you. So, when the President of the US stands at Ground Zero and tells those who had gone into the fallen building and the country that we were going to get them back for what they had done and we were so overwhelmed with emotion and anger, we cheered. We clapped. We went to war.

Today, we remember all of those who lost their lives on 9/11/01. Today, we remember and honor the lives of those who we now consider heroes: those who risked their lives to save another. Today, we remember all of the loved ones who lost their lives fighting insurgents and terrorists in far away countries. Today, we honor those still serving overseas.

And we should. We should remember. We should honor.

But, I can’t help to rethink my original feelings when I heard Bush’s bullhorn moment. What is it that makes me feel so patriotic? What is it that gives me chills? What is it that still angers me when I see the TV footage?

Can I get the chills? Is that right? Or am I moved by something I shouldn’t be? Doesn’t God call on us to forgive completely? Does Jesus call on us to love our enemies? If so, and I truly believe that, why is it that I constantly think about how angry 9/11 made me? Can I truly get excited when I find out that the man who masterminded these attacks has been shot and killed by our own forces?

These are some of the most difficult questions an American Christian can ask themselves.

Because, as a Nationalist, the first reaction is to flood the White House gates with an American flag around our shoulders. Because victory, over something so tragic, is sooo sweet.

We are a nation with a history of getting what we want.

We’ve always had an innovative military system. We’ve always had a string of religious principles that has been with us throughout our short history. We’ve always been geographically separated from so many of the world’s problems. We have led the Christian movement in many ways in the world over the past 200 years. We were also that nation that dropped two obliterating bombs on the nation that invaded our naval base. We helped end the Nazi regime, but we also interned Japanese and Native Americans. We fought each other hard over ending the enslavement of humans. And even after that, it took another 80 years (and we are still not there) to treat all American citizens like actual humans. Our leaders sometimes swear oaths with God’s name mentioned. We have religious, Biblical themes throughout almost everything we do. We allow churches to function without the headache of paying taxes. But we also highly profiled Muslim citizens wanting to fly from place to place after 9/11.

We are used to getting what we want. We are strong. We are relatively united. And our culture is that which supports and encourages any citizens to strive their best to get what they want or need.

Which is why, I think, we are so offended when we are attacked on our own soil. And, because we operate inside of that paradigm of thinking, our reaction draws emotional stimuli. And when our leader says out loud what we are feeling deeply inside ourselves, we get chills.

Because we have to defend our lands. From our very beginnings, we don’t like people telling us what to do.

The question, then, truly is this: can American Christians, a group that from our Jewish backgrounds has been somewhat nomadic and lacks a centering geographical location for our “home”, live in an authentic dual citizenship between God and country?

There are so many fundamental conflicting values between the two. And, perhaps, these are best seen and discovered when we remember times when we were so offended by actions against us.

To me, these questions, these ponderings, and these conflictions are the reason that as American Christians, we must study the Holy Scriptures. We must learn and synthesize the history of the Church. We must read and prayerfully consider what Christ asked us to do when he spoke about how we interact with one another. We must read Paul as a guide for our lives of faith.

There seems to be a movement in American Christianity to refer to Scripture whenever they don’t know the answer to something. I tend to think that they’re right…they just often choose the least important decisions to focus on, rather than overarching themes and principles. We focus so much more on gay marriage, something Jesus didn’t even mention by our records, when we ought to be focusing on loving our enemies, something he spoke strongly about.

If we forget who we as Christians are, and we often do in America, we run the risk of making hasty decisions that increase violence and war in the world, rather than bringing about peace and love.

Isn’t that our goal? Isn’t that God’s goal? Peace, hope, faith, and love?

I think so.

America has changed Christianity significantly since 1776. I can’t explain it, but I’m convinced that we can be both American citizens and Christians.

The question, for all of us, should be on a day like 9/11, how?

-B

“Obama Thinks Jesus Is Nuts.”

Bill Maher talks about how  he is a non-Christian, just like most Christians.

Beware of the foul language, it is Bill Maher.

While his rhetoric makes logical sense, I think he is targeting the part of the Christian body that won’t watch his show and might never agree with him.  The “hippy” Christians already agree with him and…probably aren’t watching his show either.

His point about Obama I thought was most interesting, as Obama has to be a politician first and foremost, probably above his faith.  He has to get Scripture to his phone every morning so that the Right will continue to tolerate him while he also has to go after America’s enemies…because, well, he is the President.

But really, who is Bill Maher to talk about accountability of Christians?

Oh, yeah, that’s right…this isn’t accountability, it is just more of his campaign against faith.

-B

Thanks to Chad Holtz for sharing.

Bashir vs. Bell

I’m near the end of reading Harnack and needed a break. Duke is up by 12. Hopefully this will end well.

I was told to watch Rob Bell‘s interview with Martin Bashir on MSNBC. Googling it, I ended up at our favorite (sarcasm) blogger’s site, Justin Taylor’s Gospel Coalition, where he graciously linked the YouTube video. Please, before going on, watch the interview below.

A few things must be made clear in order to move from point A to point B:

  1. Shame on MSNBC for having Martin Bashir interview Bell.
  2. Shame on them for airing it.
  3. Shame on Bashir for his interview tactics.

And I’m serious.  I had to watch the clip three times.

Taylor refers to Bashir in this way, “Martin Bashir is a reporter impatient with evasive answers.” I argue: Martin Bashir is a reporter who has his own agenda and wants to zing his interviewee. Moreso than ought to be acceptable in journalism. (I’m a fan of hard hitting journalism, but Bashir is worse at it than most and leads the interviewee into questions that are often unanswerable because he begins with presuppositions that aren’t true to the interviewee…not sarcasm)

First of all, like all great journalists (sarcasm), Bashir begins with a line that is framed around bloggers and writers’ opinions of the book and not necessarily off of the book itself. He says, “Bell says that ultimately all people will be saved, even those who’ve rejected the claims of Christianity…” Congrats Bashir, good way to hook the audience (sarcasm).

Then, because it is appropriate to focus a religious leader on Japan (not sarcasm), Bashir asks Bell about Japan–posing the question, “Which one of these is true: Either God is all powerful but [God] doesn’t care about the people of Japan or [God] does care about the people of Japan and isn’t all powerful.  Which is it?” Bell answers saying that God is Divine and that the message of the Scriptures is that God will fix this place and renew it again. Most likely frustrated that Bell didn’t answer his unanswerable question (even Jesus spoke in metaphors), Bashir asks his question again. Bell responds that this is a paradox at the heart of the Divine.  “Some are best left exactly as they are” Bell says. Knowing that this paradox is a reality, Bashir backs off the question.

Then he asks if Bell is a “Universalist.” Bell says no and points out that Christians have disagreed about this speculation (whether or not ALL will be saved) for ages.

Then it gets good.

Bashir asks the question that he will harp on for the rest of the interview: “Is it irrelevant, or immaterial, about how one responds to Christ in this life in terms of determining one’s eternal destiny.” Bells says, “It is extraordinarily important.”  Bashir responds immediately (interrupting) that in Bell’s book he says that “God wins regardless in the end.”

I think it is at this point that Bell realizes that Bashir and he are operating on two different mindsets, two different paradigms of thinking.

Bel says, “Love wins, for me, is a way of understanding that God is Love and love demands freedom.” Bashir says, “You are asking for it both ways, that doesn’t make sense.” While I might argue that yeah, Bashir, it doesn’t “make sense,” because the idea behind a God who puts its children on earth and those people fall away from God and God still chooses to save them doesn’t “make sense”…it is not my point. Bell isn’t asking for it both ways.  Bell is asking for a new way of thinking.

Bashir repeats the question. Bell says it is terribly relevant. “Now, how exactly that works out in the future, we are now…when you die…in speculation.” Going on explaining himself Bel basically says that entire Dogmas have been written and designed around this, which seems to be logical speculation. (I actually think this is a weak answer from Bell and perhaps without the TV cameras and the elusive British accent, he may have responded in a way that makes more “sense”)

OOOH. Then Bashir says, “I’m not asking what happens when you die, I’m asking about the here and now.” Oh Bashir, how messed up you are. YES YOU ARE. You ARE asking about what happens when you die because the question you are asking revolves around the idea of what happens when you die! You’re asking that if your response to Christ’s love matters in the here and now.  AND you’re functioning off of the assumption that that response secures you in either Heaven or hell.  So, yes, Bashir. You ARE asking about what happens when you die.  And it is to that point that Bell is responding.

Bashir continues to ask, “Does it have a bearing or not have a bearing, how you respond to Christ now, to determine your eternal destiny.”

I think Bell is making the point that you have to “know” what’s going to happen when you die…and you can’t. However, for Bell, that doesn’t make how you react to God’s love irrelevant. (I might argue that it is indeed necessary…simply because Jesus commanded it.)

“It has tremendous bearing” Bell messed this up (Cameras, lights, and British again). I’m not totally sure that Bell actually thinks it has a huge bearing.  I think he DOES think it is relevant. (Again, I think this can be explained inside of Jesus’ calling and command on our lives.)

Bell also says, “I assume God’s grace give people space to work those things out.” Some may think, including Bashir, that this is a cop out answer.  To which I respond: Saying this is a cop out answer assumes that you don’t allow God’s grace to move and work in the world.  Because this entire faith is built off of a grace, one that surpasses understanding, I might argue that you have nearly disqualified yourself as a “Christian.” It’s not a cop out…it’s an explanation (or at least an attempt) at wrestling with the many questions of life that are unclear.

Bashir quotes a critique of Love Wins: “‘There are dozens of problems with Love Wins.  The history is inaccurate, the use of Scripture is indefensible.’ That’s true isn’t it?”  To which Bell obviously responds, “No.” Does Bashir really expect Bell to admit that his factual information is wrong? I’m not sure.

The kicker: “Why do you choose to accept the works of the writer Origen and not Arius…”

While I haven’t read the book (Divinity School is time consuming), haven’t compared the historical notes (and typically Bell’s books and messages are well backed up and researched…even perhaps moreso than others…), the assumption of understanding Origen over Arius is assumed because while both were controversial at times, Arius is understood to have believed that not only is the Son subordinate, but also did not believe in Trinitarian theology and thought the divinity of the Father was over the Son. This is typically considered somewhat heretical and so…my point…BASHIR OUGHT NOT LEAD THE QUESTION AND ASSUME THAT IT IS “TRUE” WITHOUT ASSUMING THAT BELL OPERATES UNDER TYPICAL PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES LIKE THE BELIEF IN THE TRINITY. Bashir should not assume anything as a journalist, but if he does…he has to be fair about what he assumes.

I thought Bell was going to handle this. But…he went a different way. I think this was a mistake on Bell’s part.  He started, “Well, first and foremost because I am a pastor.” However, he went on to talk about a personalized side of the pastoral role rather than emphasizing the doctrinal thoughts and principles. Unfortunate.

I wondered why Bashir went back to the, “That’s true isn’t it?” line. Here’s my hypothesis: Bashir thinks Bell is a hipster pastor who is changing the Gospel to serve a purpose and in that process the Gospel is watered down and destroyed (he actually uses this as an argument later). Bell doesn’t think so. But, it doesn’t matter because Bashir has his own agenda. He later says that Bell has tried to make the Gospel more “palatable” for contemporary people who find the idea of Heaven and hell hard to stomach. Then the line, “That’s what you’ve done haven’t you?” And Bell says, “No. I spend an entire chapter in the book talking about hell.”

I imagine that if Matt Lauer were interviewing Bell, he would’ve asked “Have you done that?” Instead of “That’s what you’ve done, haven’t you?”

There is a huge difference.

The long and short is that Bashir has an agenda, something every good journalist should have (sarcasm), and wants to appear as “hard-hitting” and so he asks leading questions (poorly disguised I might add), that do no give justice to the discussion and rather try to catch a writer in his tracks.  This is poor journalism and does nothing but provide viewers to your television show. This, perhaps, is one thing that is wrong with the world at hand.

Shame on Bashir.  Shame on MSNBC.  Give the man an opportunity to defend himself in a way that is fair and just.

-B

The Church vs. the church

I wrote a paper recently where I referred to the Reformation and I needed to be clear about capitalization of a few key terms.  So I asked.  The answer I got basically said that the Catholic church has capitalized “Church” and so because of that, reformed churches do not capitalize “church” because they are not referring to “THE Church” but rather to “church.”

Since I began this blog, I’ve been capitalizing “Church.”

I thought I knew why at first. Since then, I have wondered about the significance this might bring about.

I remember learning, in high school, about the difference between “Communism” and “communism.” “communism” was the ideal. “Communism” was what actually happened (think dictators and more non-communal type leadership efforts that created a bad name for communism and socialism among most of today’s conservative Americans).

To me, in light of understanding the concept of Big C communism vs. Little C communism, I’ve had to reflect on the significance of the capitalization.  Because, as is true in every language, the words that you use and the way you place them and conjugate them signify and often mimic what you intend to say.  Even in my brief study of Greek in order to learn to read the New Testament, I have learned how certain interpretations of words can change entire theological ideas.

So my gut reaction, after hearing the explanation that the Catholic Church is referred to as “The Church,” was to be pissed off. Who says they get to claim the proper noun?

Much of the language that many of the early Christians used, especially those around the time of Luther who did not agree with the dissenting voices, involved the idea of the “true church.” Somehow, because the Catholic Church had some apostolic tradition and had been in existence since the beginning (many consider Peter to be the first papal type voice), their traditions were right and though there were many issues that came up…the “universal” (credit to Ignatius?) church was still worth sticking with.  Before the days of video cameras, copy machines, and computers, much emphasis was placed on the succession of traditions and documents. It all mattered where things came from and whom (who? The English language is so confusing) things came from.

The idea is dead simple: because I wasn’t there with Jesus, I must try to understand those who were with him. This was important for the early church and it ought to still be important today. (I’ve always wanted to write a post about how stupid the Gospel of Peter is for attempting to try to pin Peter’s name to it to give the document authority. What a bad practice.)

However, to me, the Reformation (both in parts of Europe, including England) changed that. Because we had a Canon, and the Catholic church had some unfortunate leadership, churches split off. Some maintained some traditions, some didn’t. And, in 2011 we have a whole mess of churches that call themselves Christian churches.

When I refer to the “Church,” I refer to the body of Christ (and purposefully I leave that “body” not capitalized).  For me, despite different traditions and understandings of Scripture, anyone who claims Christ and has confessed of their sins and accepted the love and grace is a part of the Church (this includes, but is not limited to: Catholics, Westboro Baptists, Methodists, persecuted Asian churches,  Calvinists, Church of Christ-ers, casual Catholics, casual Protestants, youth, women, Black churches, and more.)

**To me, it doesn’t have ANYTHING to do with discipleship. Is discipleship a necessary trait in someone who follows Christ? Of course. They help make up the “Body” of Christ (see, capitalization).**

Here is the issue: if we continue to think of the crazies as some other sort of body, some other entity, we miss the boat and we end up with the same situation as the Islamic people today (i.e. they won’t let us build a building of worship wherever we want).  The world paints them and us with the same brush: Westboro Baptists = Christians.

To me, anyone who would call themselves a Christian helps to make up The Church.

And The Church is in trouble. Why? Because as it stands right now, the Western part of The Church (mainly Euro-American bodies) is the body of Christ.  And we need to be the Body of Christ.

Can we continue to use the word “catholic” as “universal”? It seems to be that unity needs to be #1 priority and so when we talk about the future, we ought to use one term and all get behind that in order to move forward.

I think God has such high hopes for The Church.

-B

Different Definition of the Body of Christ?

Anne Rice reflecting on why she has decided to stop calling herself a Christian.

I am often much more of a critic of the Church than I ought to be and I see her point, but I think her arguments just aren’t that well defined. I don’t believe that as many sects and denominations think they speak for Christ as she makes it out to be, though many of them often get the better press coverage.

It is undeniable that leaving the Church and still having faith is becoming more popular. These people still care about the Body of Christ, yet don’t consider themselves to be fans of organized religion.

My question: Can you be a Christ follower to the potential that God has called you to and not rely at least a little on the Christians around you?

I suspect that if there are enough that don’t like organized religion, they’ll get together…and organize. Back to square one. But – maybe it’ll be better this time.

-B

On “Calling”, Servanthood, and perhaps…Itinerancy

In the United Methodist Church, ordained elders practice itinerancy. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the United Methodist Church’s website says this:

United Methodism has a unique system of assigning clergy to churches which dates back to John Wesley and which is different from any other denomination. The system by which pastors are appointed to their charges by the bishops is called itinerancy.  The present form of the intinerancy grew from the practice of Methodist pastors traveling widely throughout the church on circuits. Assigned to service by a bishop, clergy remain with one particular congregation for a limited length of time. All pastors are under obligation to serve where appointed.

And you can read more about it here.

Itinerancy, like anything in life, has a lot of upsides and a number of downsides.  UM churches always have a pastor, sometimes several, and pastors always have a job. Sort of.  Even in the conferences when guaranteed appointment is not a reality, being a UMC elder still serves as a bit of security.

Downsides? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Some pastors will tell you that there is no downside.  Some will tell you that moving often is a downside.  Some will tell you that being at the mercy of a human decision who appoints you is a downside. Some will tell you that being put in a position that does not play into your greatest strengths is a downside.  Others would add that not being able to do much about it s a downside.

Still, most pastors would tell you that they enjoy being a servant. Because allowing themselves to be open to wherever they are “led” allows them to have a servant’s attitude and posture at all times. For good reason too, because it is true.  However ascetic that may seem at any point, it is the way and tradition that it has been handled and for the most part…it seems to have worked.

As I often do though, I have many questions. And as most of my questions do, I might piss people off. So? Press onward.

Servanthood.

Like, “choose life”, I never like when utopian, goal-centered, life-inspiring words are aligned with practices. My immediate thoughts when I hear this language approached in this way are not that that practice (in this case, itinerancy) is simply a form of servanthood (which it is), but rather that that use of language implies that that practice is either 1) the only way to achieve the goal-centered, life-inspiring, way-to-live-your-life or 2) that your form of being a servant is a higher form of servanthood than someone who might not “serve” in the same form that you do.

Let me be clear: I’ve never heard anyone suggest this. But, the language-to me-is scary.

Of course, you’ll never meet a United Methodist pastor who thinks this way. Well, I hope not. Why? “Call”.

I truly believe that all pastors who serve congregations are serving as pastors (no matter what their appointment…even if it is not in a church at the current moment) feel called to do so.  They feel called to serve as a pastor.  In general.  Serve as a pastor.

For me, and I don’t claim that it is fair to blanket anyone else in my statements, I don’t get it. For me. Some people feel called to serve wherever they are told to go. They do it with a willing heart. If they are specifically talented in one area (let’s say that they are church “rebuilders”) and they are sent to a church that doesn’t need those specific talents at that given time, they do so willingly because they feel called to…serve.

But when I examine myself, my own gifts, my own talents, I don’t see where they fit into this model.

When you feel so strongly about how God is using and shaping you, I can’t help but feel like even though it may not be as ascetic (because I maintain some control of my own future) it is still a sense of servanthood. And I doubt that many would disagree.  This is why the UMC has an order of Deacons.

So, the main argument-I think- has to do with appropriateness of the role of being a servant for each person, as it relates to their life and situation, and “calling.”  This seems fairly obvious. To many, this is the definition of calling.

I believe that God will use every single person. And I think that God will use every single person’s talents for the good of the Church if they’ll allow.  And, obviously that not only includes pastors but also anyone else who is willing to serve in any capacity.

And maybe it is my own struggle with authority.  And maybe it is that I don’t like being told what to do.

Or.  Maybe.  It is that I truly feel like I am talented in certain areas of ministry (and suck in others) and that to be placed somewhere where those gifts aren’t being used to the full potential would be a detriment to the potential of what God could be doing. Not that God won’t use you in every situation and circumstance, but certainly talents and gifts can be used in new and refreshing ways in some places over others. I think that’s what the issue is for me. Find your fit. Find your place. Find your gifts. Put them there.

God uses all in all situations, this much is true.  But, the burn and fire inside of your heart is perhaps a true calling from God, not your own desires. And maybe you ought to do something about it, and stop the ascetic servanthood.

Do what you do, well.

 

-B

 

P.S. – I hope this blog post sparks conversation about submission and obedience.

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