Music and Theology, Part 2

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Songs, at their best, capture our hearts, they connect us with meaning, they move us... both literally and metaphorically. Good songs express the voice of a generation, they capture a time, they become our song.

This has to do with the way a song fuses music and words. Art (in this case music) has the power to make words and ideas really get under our skin. That's why Plato urged the city fathers to exile all the poets and storytellers. He argued that while philosophers deal with ideas in open rational ways, poets conceal their ideas within the seductive emotions of art. It's true. As Robert McKee observes, 
"Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in effect compelling the idea into us, so that we must believe. In fact, the persuasive power of story is so great that we may believe its meaning even if we find it morally repugnant."
That kind of persuasive power puts a huge social responsibility on storytellers and songwriters. Yet McKee boldly insists, 
"I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth."
Good art is about honesty. When we instead attempt to use our music or art to promote something--even a good thing--it becomes cheap and hollow. A lot of worship music is like that, as well as much "contemporary Christian music" (CCM). The artists are not allowed to be honest, to sing from the heart, and it rings untrue to us. A good song, including a good worship song, needs to come from the depths of the soul.

Honesty alone is not enough of course. If we are honest but unreflected, we get a shallow song like "I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day." It's honest, but it's shallow. But when we can be uncensored and raw, and combine this with reflection, we get the opposite of shallow. 

Consider the song "It's Been Awhile" by Staind,

It's been awhile
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been awhile
Since I first saw you

It's been awhile
Since I could stand on my own two feet again
And it's been awhile
Since I could call you 

And everything I can't remember
As fucked up as it all may seem to be 

I know it's me
I cannot blame this on my father
He did the best he could for me

It's been awhile
Since I can say that I wasn't addicted
And it's been awhile
Since I can say I love myself as well

It's been awhile
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been awhile
Since I said I'm sorry

This is a song about addiction, regret, and failure. It's a song about struggling with your failings, and struggling to love yourself in the midst of it, even when you know you are hurting those closest to you. It's a song about facing our own darkness.

Staind is not a Christian band. No one is telling Staind that they ought to write a song about sin and repentance. It is just a raw and honest song, that comes from the heart. What makes it powerful is that you can sense that it is honest and real. 

But this song draws out the point that "honesty" is not quite the right word here. A better word is vulnerability. Honesty can imply saying what you feel or believe in an unapologetic way. Telling someone on Youtube that they suck may be honest, but it's not vulnerable. That's also where we get all the mean-spirited and reactionary judgmental statements from angry conservative Christians that has so poisoned our social conversation. People say awful ugly hurtful things, and claim "I'm just being honest." What's worse, they think this is an expression of their faith, that it has to do with upholding moral values. 

It may be honest, but it's not vulnerable, and as a result it polarizes us. It does not lead to reconciliation or repentance, rather it builds up walls. That is quite the opposite of what Jesus and the gospel were all about. Jesus said he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it, to bring redemption and reconciliation--that's what the gospel is all about, and it seems that more and more conservative Evangelicals have lost sight of that. We may think it's brave to "take a stand" like that, but it's really not. What takes real courage is vulnerability.

There is a place for anger. It's not that anger is not real or legitimate, it's that expressing anger alone is just too superficial. When we dig down deeper to ask what it was that made us feel angry, we find something more vulnerable beneath--feeling disrespected, excluded, condemned, rejected, unwanted. "When you do that, it makes me feel worthless" gets down deeper than simply saying "it makes me really angry when you do that." Saying "When you walk away when we're fighting, I'm afraid you'll leave me"  gets down so much deeper than simply saying "I'm mad at you for walking out."

That kind of vulnerability results in empathy, as the person hearing it understands our pain, rather than becoming defensive and pushing back. In short, being honest without vulnerability does not produce the result that we want. Vulnerability is harder. The very word means that we are susceptible to harm or attack. Yet somehow when we open up like that, the other opens up, too. It's that kind of paradox that Jesus referred to when he said "if you want to find your life, you must lose it." It's in confessing our sins, our weakness, our fear, that we find our way back towards love and hope. Faith is not the expression of certainty, it's the expression of vulnerability. It says, "I see all the pain and injustice, I see my own failings, and yet I'm still holding on."

Being vulnerable as a songwriter entails speaking of the things that are close to our heart with courage--speaking of our longings, what matters to us, speaking of our struggles and hopes. This results in songs that capture the real depth and complexity of life. It allows us to delve down so much deeper than when we merely say what we feel we ought to, what we are supposed to say. 

It can be scary to go there, but that's what living is about. The theologians and philosophers of the world could learn a lot from the courageous vulnerability of the artist.

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Music and Theology, Part 1

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Music has always been a window for theology for me. When words are put to music, it can make you dance, jump up and down, sway back and forth, lift your hands towards the ceiling... in short music moves us, both figuratively and literally. Music speaks to the heart, it pulls us into the song in a way that words alone simply cannot. 

This has to do with how a song combines words (which speaks to the head, to our cognitive understanding) with music (which speaks to the heart, to our emotions). Connecting head and heart is vital. Of course feelings without content are pretty shallow, but on the other hand, theology that is all head is dry and lifeless. There is much that is good about academic study, but when it is only academic, when it does not connect to the heart, it pretty much misses the point, like a tree uprooted from the ground. That's why it's a shame that seminary has so little connection with the things of the heart like music, and is so focused on the head. 

If theology is the study of meaning, music (along with other art forms) acts as the medium to connect us to that meaning. Music allows us to live in the space of a song, to step into it. We all have songs that can take us back to an important time in our lives, songs that held particular meaning for us. Couples often say a particular song was "their song" (for my wife and me, that song is "Something in the Way" by Nirvana, especially the line "it's okay to eat fish," but that's a story for another day).

A song can thus take on a meaning that is particular to our own lives, meanings the writer of the song never imagined. One song that did this for me was "Learning to Breathe" by Switchfoot. My son was born premature. He weighed a meager 2.5lbs, and his lungs were underdeveloped. So in the ICU he would often stop breathing, and a nurse would rush over to touch him gently so he would start to breathe again. This was of course nerve-wrecking for us as his parents, the alarms on his monitors screaming, and our hearts screaming even louder. The words of the song took on a meaning for us that I'm sure Switchfoot never imagined when they wrote the song,

I'm learning to breathe
I'm learning to crawl
I'm finding that You and You alone can break my fall
I'm living again, awake and alive
I'm dying to breathe in these abundant skies
So this is the way I say I need You
This is the way that I say I love You
This is the way that I say I'm Yours
This is the way, this is the way

That was the part that I imagined my little boy singing, both to us and to God. Then there was my part of the song to sing,

Hello, good morning, how you been?
Yesterday left my head kicked in
I never, never thought that I would fall like that
Never knew that I could hurt this bad

So as to not be too sad, let me say that my son is now a healthy little ten-year-old, happily playing Minecraft with two friends in the next room. Nevertheless, that song still takes me back to that time, and it undoes me every time I hear it. I'll let you have a listen too,

That song means something to me that, I think it's safe to say, its authors never conceived of. Songs are like children in that way. You create them, but then they grow in ways that you never imagined, and you as the artist just watch and see what they have become, like a proud parent.

We read the Bible in that same way. We read an epistle like Galatians as if it were speaking to us, as if God were speaking through the text to us, speaking into our lives--even though we are perfectly aware that it was written to people in a city we've probably never been to, in a time long before ours.

It is perfectly legitimate to read the Bible like this, letting it speak into our lives. That's not a misreading. It's reading the text in the same way we hear a song. It is reading it so as to connect us with meaning. That's kind of the whole point.

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Book review: Brian Zahnd's Water to Wine

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Brian Zahnd’s new book Water to Wine tells the story of his own personal journey out of the “grape juice Christianity” he had known, characterized by American values of consumerism and military might, towards a deeper and richer understanding of faith.

Zahnd personal exodus was grounded, he says, in five words: cross, mystery, eclectic, community, revolution. Each of these plays a definitive role in shaping the character of the deeper faith he discovered, the rich “wine” that the book’s title refers to, but at the center of all of it stands the cross.

What does it mean to have our faith centered on the cross? Zahnd writes that meditation on the cross “became a form of shock therapy—a radical reorientation that revealed how disturbingly distorted much of Americanized Christianity had become.”

So what characterizes a Christianity that has been “Americanized”? Zahnd focuses on the two core American values of consumerism and militarism, which had shaped his own faith. A Christianity which is driven by the value of consumerism translates into a self-focused pursuit of wealth and happiness. For Zahnd that meant adopting the word-of-faith of the gospel.

Similarly, a Christianity driven by the value of militarism translates into life “organized around an axis of power enforced by violence”. Again, this is not simply theoretical for Zahnd. He has shared the stage with the likes of Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft, and Dick Cheney, but slowly came to realize “I was nothing more than a puppet in a high stakes game of power politics.” In a personal confession, Zahnd tells of a time in prayer and meditation when Jesus took him back to an evening in 1991,

I saw myself watching the bombing of Baghdad live on television, eating pizza, and enjoying it. I wasn’t conflicted. I wasn’t grieved. I was entertained... Then, as I sat with Jesus and was confronted with this long forgotten episode, Jesus spoke to me, “That was your worst sin.” I wept bitterly.

Looking back on how his faith was shaped by consumerism and militarism, Zahnd refers to this as an “aberration” and amusingly as “cotton candy Christianity.” The format of the book, as a personal narrative... perhaps one could even call it a confession... is instructive here. We forget that Paul’s letters take this form as well. Paul similarly refers to his religious past as “dung” (the original word Paul used is perhaps less polite, but it basically means he sees it as garbage compared to Christ). Also, like Zahnd, Paul grew to see his greatest sin as participation in religiously justified acts of violence motivated by religious zeal. Paul describes himself as “the worst of all sinners” and “a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15), and confesses painfully, “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Those kinds of personal revelations are hard won. They don’t come from study, but from the painful experience of life. In a very real way, Zahnd’s story is one of a conversion. Not his initial conversion to Christ, but nevertheless a very real conversion—the conversion of a successful mega-church pastor, repenting of a Christianity watered down by American values of success and power, who came to find the rich wine of deeper faith centered in the cross.

Centering one’s faith in the cross is not an easy road to take. It means centering faith in weakness rather than in power. It means learning to “lose your life to find it.” While it is true that this indeed leads to life and love which is indeed truly good news, it does entail, as Zahnd says, “a radical reorientation” of our lives. It is a re-orientation that moves us away from the self-protective reactionary fear that so deeply characterizes our country right now on so many levels, and towards a focus on caring for those we value “the least” in our society, those we regard as undeserving and even as our enemies—the poor, the criminal, the foreigner, the other. That is indeed a costly faith, but as Zahnd can tell us firsthand, it is well worth the cost.

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Crumbs From The Table - A New Kind Of Perfection

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Gospels present the radical idea that, in Jesus, God is revealed in human form. For the Greco-Roman mindset this was a scandalous idea. Humans were thought to be impure, and so the idea that God could have a body was offensive and shocking. Understanding this goes a long way to understanding why the theological debates of the first church councils revolved around the humanity of Jesus, and the pull to see Jesus either as only divine or as only human. Against these tendencies the early church stressed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.

In general, the tendency to think of God as detached from the corruption of human affairs is a Greek idea, while seeing God in more emotional human terms reflects Hebrew thinking. We get the idea of God as the "unmoved mover" from Plato, while the Hebrew prophets paint a picture of God -- to borrow a phrase from the late Clark Pinnock -- as the most moved mover

Because subsequent Christian theology has been so deeply shaped by Greek thinking, the image of God found in the Gospels in the person of Jesus still can come as a shock to our thinking. We have a tendency to want to sanitize the picture we find. 

One example of this that I explore in Disarming Scripture is how Jesus is seen by the Gospel writers as being sinless, but is nevertheless presented as being accused of being a sinner by the religious authorities of his day. A typical response to this, employed by many a Greek-thinking Bible commentator, is to deny that Jesus actually broke any laws. But that is not what the Gospels actually say. By their account, Jesus did break commandments, and in fact did so in clear defiance of the religious authorities. So the picture we have from the Gospels is that the way Jesus was sinless involved breaking certain commandments in the name of compassion. In other words, faithfulness to the ultimate aim of the Law required breaking the Law.

In this post, I'd like to focus on a passage that is perhaps even more challenging to our Greek-thinking bias. The Gospel of Mark (Mk 7:24-30) tells the story of a Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her that "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." and she replies, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table." Jesus is so impressed by her retort that he changes his mind, in effect repenting, and heals her daughter.

To my knowledge, this is the only time recorded in the Gospels where Jesus loses a verbal exchange, where Jesus is "bested" by someone else, where they get the punchline. Typically, Jesus is able to reply to every challenge of the Scribes and Pharisees with some brilliant zinger, like "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mk 12:17) or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (Jn 8:7). If the Gospels were a sitcom, you'd hear the studio audience laughing after every line Jesus says, and it's highly likely that the crowds hearing his brilliant retorts did laugh. Today we would say "Oh, snap!"

But this time was different. This time it is the woman who wins, and it is Jesus who repents.

This is hard to take. The implication is that Jesus is not only being rude in calling her a "dog," but also racist in saying that one ethnicity (his people, the Jews) are more deserving of God's care than outsider Gentiles are. Perhaps to underline this, in Matthew's account (Mt 15), the ethnicity of the woman is said to be a Canaanite, the long-standing enemies of the Jews. In essence, an "unclean" person comes to Jesus, asking for mercy, and Jesus initially refuses. But she persists, and Jesus agrees.

Again, many commentators attempt to soften things. One of my favorites is to claim that the Greek word Jesus used really means "little puppy" as if Jesus were saying something adorable rather than insulting. For example, in the notes to the NET Bible we read

"The diminutive form originally referred to puppies or little dogs, then to house pets. In some Hellenistic uses κυνάριον (kunarion) simply means “dog.”

The term dogs does not refer to wild dogs (scavenging animals roaming around the countryside) in this context, but to small dogs taken in as house pets. It is thus not a derogatory term per se, but is instead intended by Jesus to indicate the privileged position of the Jews (especially his disciples) as the initial recipients of Jesus’ ministry."

I have to say I find this explanation really a stretch. Even if Jesus is indeed softening the Jewish habit at the time of referring to Gentiles as "mongrels," and instead is calling them simply house pets, it still implies an acceptance of the idea that people of her race (Gentiles) have less value in the eyes of God than people of his race (Jews), just as a house pet has less value than a child.

More to the point however is that the story does not end here, but continues to present a picture of Jesus losing a moral argument and repenting. This is of course difficult because the Gospels tell us that Jesus is the picture of moral perfection. So how can it be that the Gospels present Jesus as being morally in the wrong here?

There are a number of approaches to understanding this. There is the fundamentalist option of seeking to justify the actions of Jesus, claiming that God has in the past restricted salvation to only the Jews, but that in Jesus this had changed and salvation was made available to Jews and Gentiles alike. This is the least plausible of all the options. Are we really to believe that God had ordained this change in dispensation, apparently beginning at the precise moment the woman made her retort, and taking Jesus a little off guard? 

Then there is the secular-liberal option of claiming that Jesus was simply a fallible human, and thus subject to being immoral like all of us. While more plausible than the fundamentalist option above, this is the least attractive of all the options. It seems to miss the whole message of the Gospels, saying "Sorry, nothing to see here, just move along." It's depressing and has little to offer other than disillusionment.

Finally, there is the option that you might call "nice Evangelical" which is an option that folks like me tend to gravitate towards. It seeks to explain how what Jesus said, while seeming insulting, really wasn't. The idea is that Jesus was only pretending to be prejudiced in order to draw out the conflict and build a bridge, crossing the ethnic divide.

This is indeed plausible, and attractive, and if you wanted to go with that, I wouldn't want to stand in your way.

But I'd like to propose something different, because I find it more challenging, and I want to allow the message the Gospels present of Jesus to challenge me, and resist the urge to sanitize it.

Jesus is supposed to be our model of moral perfection. That's an idea we get from the Gospels. So how can it be that Jesus is "corrected" by this woman in the Gospels? How can it be that we have in the Gospels a story where Jesus is presented as being in the wrong morally? We know that the Gospel writers did edit the stories of Jesus, so if their aim was to present Jesus as morally perfect, why did they include this story that a modern PR firm surely would have edited out?

What if the picture of moral perfection that the Gospels give us is not one of never being wrong, but presents us with a model of being open and able to grow? What if true goodness involves the ability to listen and learn and adapt, and even to... repent? What if this Gospel pericope were not an embarrassment that we need to seek to cover up or explain away, but a good example of what moral maturity looks like that the Gospel writers have purposely included to illustrate this idea for us?

I know that is challenging, but I think those are some crumbs worth chewing on.

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