Hey! Lay off Chris Tomlin: A Response

Jonathan Aigner, a UMC music director and worship blogger, took on a reader recently. Quoting his reader, the anonymous "Glenn", Aigner fires back on Glenn's accusation that Aigner often unfairly takes shots at Chris Tomlin, one of America's modern leaders of music in worship.

Aigner often has a lot of smart things to say, particularly about theology in worship. That's convenient because that's literally the URL of his site.

Though I respect much of Aigner's work, I feel as if this time Aigner missed the mark. In what I can only imagine is a defensive work so as to continue his personal vendetta against Tomlin, Aigner inaccurately describes Tomlin's music, blindly points out the speck in Tomlin's eye, and in the process secures his readership in their own personal dislike of the modern worship scene.

Aigner organizes his thoughts by way of several key aspects of Tomlin's music. I'll do the same here.

Tomlin's Music Isn't For Congregational Singing

 I've many times over been led in singing by Chris Tomlin and those he's raised up as new leaders and songwriters. I also consider myself to be a student of the worship artists who are writing new music for the church. I, as a seminary graduate and music leader myself, think often about what I call the "sing-ability" of the music we lead with.

I'd argue that Tomlin's music is often melodically and rhythmically simpler than almost every other mainstream worship writer. My argument might even consider the fact that his music has caught on more than others' precisely because of this.

Aigner doesn't use this argument, though. His assertion centers on the fact that Tomlin's Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) hits a "high G" in its refrain. That's factually inaccurate. Tomlin's refrain, one he tagged onto the beloved hymn, makes use of a high F, a whole step down from the G to which Aigner is referring. Most basses are going to drop the melody down an octave anyway. Most altos are going to sing it in octaval unison with the tenors (Tomlin, for instance) and the sopranos will sing it just as normal. A G above middle C is unattainable for most baritones, relatively high for most tenors and sopranos, and right in line with with altos. An F (the actual pitch Tomlin sings) is a more agreeable pitch simply because it finds itself below most sopranos' and tenors' passaggios, reachable for baritones, and again in line with an alto melody. I'd criticize Tomlin for writing a G too.  But he didn't write a G. He wrote an F.

Aigner also references the problem of the "solo" worship leader. He remarks that Tomlin's vocal stylings do not allow for congregational singing, instead presenting the congregation with the opportunity to merely sing along. It's true that our modern worship culture doesn't see anything wrong with worshipful singing being described as singing along, but to attribute this solely to Tomlin is unfair. To critique this on the basis of Tomlin's musicality alone is worse yet.

Because He Writes Poor Texts

Here, Aigner tackles Tomlin's poetic skills. The lines he chooses to prove his point are these:

  1. And like a flood His mercy rains
  2. He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide…
  3. And if our God is for us, then what could stand against…
  4. I will rise on eagles’ wings / Before my God fall on my knees…

My commentary on each: 

  1. Tomlin's (worth noting that Louie Giglio is also given songwriting attribution here)  obvious intention here is to metaphorically draw the connection between never-ending rain and God's never-ending mercy. Aigner suggests this is a weak metaphor but I've never heard of anyone using a water metaphor for God's mercy before.  I, too, wish Tomlin hadn't used a destructive force of water to describe God's mercy.
  2. Criticize the guy on weak and strange metaphors, sure, but criticize him for quoting the psalmist?  No. This isn't a fair critique at all. Here's a concession critics should make: songwriters are allowed to quote scripture and not be criticized for poor poetic skills.
  3. See above. I've heard the argument before that this line does not properly assign an object to the preposition whereas Paul does in his Romans text.  That might be a fair assumption but, again, Tomlin wouldn't be the first hymn writer to stretch the English language to fit a rhyme scheme or rhythmic structure. 
  4. I can only imagine Aigner's frustration with this line is its imperfect rhyme structure. Ok, sure. Or maybe it's the irony of "rising" by "falling on my knees". At the skin level, the latter critique seems humorous. I think there's something beautiful, though, about drawing the connection between humility before God and rising as Christ was risen. 

Because He Is A Worship Superstar

I'm with the high and mighty idea that those who write music for the church ought to do so for the good of the church and the church alone. Their work is kingdom building work and ought to be seen as such.

But this celebrity-status isn't a new phenomenon. Do you think John Wesley wasn't a big deal? He famously learned to preach to the multitudes of people gathered from George Whitefield. American churches vowed to follow his every instructions(sort of). Isaac Watts trained pastor after pastor at his large church in London. Tomlin may be an overpaid worship superstar but he's certainly not the first and certainly won't be the last Christian celebrity.

And whose fault is it really that Tomlin's presence has the gravitas it does? Tomlin's? Or is he simply trying to make the best music he can for a modern generation? Is it the nature of us, the people, that want to celebritize everything we come into contact with?  Likely.

And before you go on pointing to the "showy" nature of modern worship music as the reason for this, I'd like to point to this, a church organist competition (utilizing the playing of hymns) with a cash prize. So maybe, just maybe, let's step off that high horse for just a second. After all, a quick Google search of Jonathan Aigner's name returns a few professionally-shot-in-a-church promotional head shots. Speck, meet log.

 

Aigner thinks it right and proper to criticize the work of the church so as to make it better. I'm with him. But these types of critiques of the modern worship world cannot be generalized, must be factually accurate, and ought to be approached with humility. It's only in that moment that we'll actually make any progress as a church and enable ourselves to speak to generations to come. 

 

-B

Rebranding My Facebook

On Monday I begin the next 'chapter in my life' (though I'm not fond of that phrase) as I take a position at Florida Southern College as the Associate Chaplain. Florida Southern is my undergraduate alma mater and I couldn't be happier to be beginning work at such an institution. I'm even happier still that I'll finally be with my wife again after a long hard year living separately.

Attending seminary at Duke was a mind opening experience. I've written about it previously on this site, you can browse below to find it. What most seminarians will tell you but you might not realize is that the power behind the learning doesn't really happen in the classroom. The learning happens in the conversations, the study sessions, and the field education placements, in which you and those around you discuss communally and practically those things which are so important to the faith.

I've become infamous over the last three years for living out those conversations very publicly online. I've said things I still, to this day, agree with. I've also said things that, after going back and reading them, I have no idea how I logically arrived at the conclusion I did. Whatever the case and my feelings toward my statements now, they officially live in the permanence that is the Internet.

Many who see the Internet as a dangerous place will tell you that this new pervasive permanence is a bad thing. While the degree of pervasiveness is likely higher than at any other point in history, the idea of publication being permanent is not new at all. In fact, since the printing press, ideas could be easily distributed among the masses. These ideas came from people whose, say, Board of Ordained Ministries were watching and reading them. Conveniently, when the time was right, the Board would be able to pull up their latest published book and say, "In your last book, you said ________. We think that's foolish." Though the American criminal system allows one to keep words they say from being used against them in court, our extrajudicial bodies have no such ties. Since publication was a possibility for humans, the idea that their words could come back to haunt them has been in strong force.

What the Internet HAS done is this: make it so that every single person on the planet can publish themselves. There is no overseeing publishing company saying things like, "Should you really say that?" Or even, "Should you say that in that way?" Now, because of the gift of Facebook, we are all treated to an abundance of knowledge and record of what everyone in our lives had for dinner last night and what their position is on gun control. And now every word and picture can come back to haunt them later in life.

Back to me. I've chosen to use the road of Facebook to engage in what I consider to be worthwhile conversations regarding real things that affect us day in and day out. As someone who has scoured Internet forums for years, I see Facebook as a far more accountable tool for conversing. Facebook has my daily activities, places of employment, pictures, name, and other useful information attached to it. If I say something that is unfair, unkind, or egregious (and I do), my name is attached to it. Anyone who took considerable time to read online forums and compared them to my Facebook wall would quickly realize that the conversations are far less vindictive and quite a bit tamer on my wall. Facebook, because of its nature, allows that.

Now, I've found the conversations on my Facebook wall to be eye opening. They're a lot like the lunch conversations in seminary. Some of the highlights include my recent tirades on why guns are fundamentally bad for us, Beyonce's Super Bowl performance, and my constant avoidance of difficult topics like abortion. Many have characterized these threads as hateful and rude, but I don't see them that way. I don't approach anger in disagreement as a negative thing; I approach it with excitement. The chance to learn, to see differently, and ponder anew is right around the corner. What fun!

The Internet, more specifically the Facebook News Feed feature, brings a new dynamic to Internet publication and response though: it forces it into the faces of your thousands of friends whether they wanted to read it or not. The anger in some of these threads is perceived by many as a a negative way for a Christian to interact with the world. Many many many have brought this to my attention, even calling into question my character because of the threads. Their point is this: I publish a status, I get a response, I respond, the thread goes down a dark way, and it feeds my ego that people comment on the status. While this isn't how I've perceived it at all, the point is well taken. Their argument often follows that no real conversing is done here. Instead, we have fighting for the sake of fighting.

Those who tell me such things have their own opponents in this regard too. I can't describe how many people have privately contacted me or commented in the thread itself letting me know that they're glad that I say the things I do. They're glad that I have the courage to be as outspoken on issues that normal Christians won't touch. Their comments often fill me with confidence and joy; being in the heat of arguments like those that occur on my wall can be depressing.

Both sides have a point and up until this point I've shown little regard for trying to walk the balance beam that exists between these two sides. Like a free agent, I've kind of done whatever I want, whatever I feel is right, with little regard for the political or social implications of my actions.

While this ignorant world that I've been living in is incredibly fun and freeing, I'm also keenly aware that this is not the real world. As a Christian and pastor I know that my words have meaning. My words speak. My words matter. And not only that, my words are accompanied by the manner in which I speak. This is where those Internet haters have a point. The way that I say things matters more, often, than the things that I actually say. This is perhaps where I have been loosest in walking that balance beam.

And so, with this, because of the pervasive permanence of the Internet, my new role in representing institutions, the dynamic differences in Facebook publishing, and the constant bombardment of threats on my character, I'd like to announce a rebranding of my Facebook. From now on, I plan to keep most controversial things that I feel like need to be said to places like this blog where I can be more thorough in my approaches, I can think through more, and where the blatant information and conversations are not thrust into the faces of every Facebook friend I have. Knowing me, some of it will creep in and out of my statuses from now and then, but I fully intend on those updates being a lot more trivial than they've been in the past. The old material will, for now, remain on my wall. However, I'm not going to go back to engage in conversations like I did before. Facebook will, hopefully, not play that role in my life anymore.

These conversations are worth having, but the context of them will continually need to be rethought. If I feel like something is missing here, I'll reevaluate, but I think it'll work.

Keep up with me. I greatly enjoy it.

-B

"With Every Breath We Sing"

The key line, perhaps, to Bellarive's hit worship song "Taste of Eternity" points to a relatively new phenomenon that's been occurring in our churches' worship music for the past few years.  If you're unfamiliar with the song, it might help to check it out below before moving on.

The song is simple, catchy, relatively singable, and sincere. It has everything that one might imagine that it needs for it to be 'successful' in the ever increasing worship music genre.  Bellarive, as a band, is catching on in popularity.  They're a great band with a unique sound and a strong following.  The world is likely to hear much more from them.

For fun though, let's parse the trend we see in the video above.

A trendy band, gathered in a circular fashion, singing a psalm-like text together, as one. The communal nature of the singing is evident in the group around them as well.  Many eyes are closed, hands are raised, bodies moving passionately.  The video conveys to me this: these people love God and are singing their love to God, together. This is typical of what mainline Christians are often calling "charismatic" or "evangelical" worship.  As someone who falls somewhere in between those two sides, I can testify that I find what you see in the video above very powerful.

The comparison to David's Psalms is not that far off.  Many of his Psalms are emotional.  The experience you see above is emotional.  Many of David's Psalms are personal.  This song is, without doubt, very personal (while using the pluralized first person to describe the community).  Compare this song, though, to many Wesleyan texts from the beginning of the Methodist movement.  Wesleyan hymns (written mostly by Charles, John's brother) were often very personal and often didn't use the pluralized first person (but were still sung communally).  They were, however, written on a different intellectual level than what you might hear above. Charles, after all, was interested in conveying theological insight of the goodness of God's grace and love into the text of the hymns.  It's a sung theology. This kind of singing was high on Charles's priority list.

In a Wesleyan text, you get a clear in-depth theology in the music. Above, you get a heartfelt communal response to God but you don't get a clear in-depth theology.

And so we find ourselves at the same argument that's been made for years about the state of contemporary music: there's not much lyrically there. Some even make the argument that our communal theology has become weaker as a whole in our pursuit to fall in love with God.  A summary of such an argument might be to say this: our love for God has overshadowed and replaced a deep understanding of God's infinite grace that used to be explicitly expressed in our worship music and no longer is.  Sure, Bellarive's lyrics acknowledge "all that [God] has done," but a Wesleyan text, for instance, would likely describe it in further detail.

I observe a lot of worship groups in many many different situations.  I even participate in a fair amount of them.  After all, my age group is currently leading this revolution.  I think it is inevitable that groups like Bellarive will form and shape the future of worship music in our churches.  They already are.  If you ask me, that's ok; they're a really good band. But it is undeniable that a sung theology that you might see in a hymn writer like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley is lost in most of our current music. It used to appear to me to be something the "theological astute" would argue about because they disliked the style of music.  I now see it plainly: it's simply the truth of our current situation.

A rich, sung theology is traded for an excitement in a singable melody, a band using musical elements to engage the emotions (at 2:20 you can hear the band building, the lead singer taking his melody up an octave, the band pausing for the anticipation of the coming hit on the word "sing"…it's like waiting for the drop in Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble"), and simplistic, heartfelt, personal, and emotional lyrics.

Perhaps within this movement the church is returning to a more Psalm-like (and yes, I recognize that this is a shallow and over-generalized interpretation of the Psalms) approach to worship.  Perhaps.  You might argue that this is bad.  Or you might argue that worship is once again "authentic" (as if it ever wasn't).

Imagine, though, a band like Bellarive using the musical elements that build the excitement through their musicality (that inevitably convey a strong sense of power within the music), mixed with singable melodies and unbelievably deep texts about who God is, who God is calling us to be, and what eternity really looks like.  That sort of music, that sort of movement, gets me really excited.  Then perhaps the taste of eternity, in all its fullness, might more fully be on our lips so that with every breath we could sing to the one who reveals that very fullness to us.

-B

The Church and The Gym, Part 2

NOTE: I have no idea what the proper spelling of judgement (judgment) is. I don't really care enough to look it up either.

I reread my post from yesterday. I don't think I was completely clear and I think clarification might show us something that is a little more helpful.

Yesterday when I wrote about the gym I seemed to describe the gym as a completely non-judgmental place. That simply isn't true, no matter how good it sounds. Take yesterday at CrossFit for example. We were doing some back squats and I took on way too much weight. After you've done a few back squats, you're supposed to move up a bit in your weight but my legs were exhausted. I fell out of the next squat. Of course, the whole gym saw me. I couldn't help but think about what they were thinking.

And as much as I'd like to think that they didn't think to themselves, "that guy has no idea what he is doing," my guess is that several of them did. There's no doubt that people observe each other at the gym and judge what they're doing (for better or worse) against what they themselves are doing.

This CAN be good. "Oh, hey, that guy is really keeping his chest up and look how straight his back is!" might allow you to learn from the guy in front of you. But...it can also be bad. "Man, that guy just fell out of his back squat twice," is helpful for neither party. It, perhaps, even encourages a "I'm better than him" mentality that has historically led to a bullied existence in extreme circumstances.

If one were to read my post from yesterday and assume that CrossFit is this magical place where no one judges anyone ever, one would have taken away the wrong image. I like to think that people love watching others succeed and don't consider it when they don't, but that's simply not true. If the rest of the world's people are even half as bad at being a human as I am, then they judge. I know they do because I do.

We see this in the church as well.

Perhaps you're thinking that the vision that I presented yesterday is more of an eschatological one...like this non-judgment state of nirvana is the end goal. But I'm not quite so sure that's it either.

Judgement exists in several forms in both the church and the gym. Maybe understanding that more fully is the key.

See, in the church we do judge people. In fact, I'd argue that we are called to judge people. If that sounds shocking, it's likely that you and I are working with two different definitions of judgement. When I speak of judgement, I don't speak of someone making a judgement and then using that to make one feel like an outsider. I speak of a sense of accountability. My hope is that my judgement is more of an encouragement! The judgement I speak of attempts to spur one on toward Christian perfection, not keep one out of the walls of the church.

So perhaps what I truly mean is that neither the gym nor the church are free of judgement. The care that must be taken within these two bodies is in the type of judgement used. If I fall out of a back squat, I want someone to hold me accountable to the amount of weight I put on the bar and the poor form I executed the squat with. Will that be painful to hear? Perhaps. But if it is done in a mild and encouraging manner (as it often is at CrossFit), I can learn. And...do better than I did last time.

So is the struggle of the church. The church, in fear that it might be forced to apologize for who it is has--in the past 200 years--created this judgement that pushed others away. The intimidation, as I said yesterday, is too much. "All these people speaking another language and judging me."

What if, though, our judgement were initially perceived as an encouragement rather than a judgement? What would it take to pull that off? What might that pastoral tone sound like?

These are all the questions we MUST ask ourselves as Christians. Judgement is something we are called to. But it's not the judgement of this world. It's not the judgement that pushes people away. It's a judgement that has its own set of standards and practices and is unapologetic about that. It's also a judgement that spurs one on toward perfection in an encouraging way. It's one that reassures the judged that a community is standing behind them.

It's not that no one judges in the gym. Neither is it that everyone judges in the church. But...both entities ought to strive for a more encouraging accountability that builds up its members so that they might do better than they did before. I'm happy to say that quite a bit of the good judgement happens at CrossFit. I'm honestly unaware how much of it is currently happening in our churches.

It's a paradigmatic shift and it's one that is needed now in our churches. Pronto.

-B

Change. Renewal. Faith.

In May, with any luck at all, I'll go on to graduate from Duke University's Divinity School with a Masters in Divinity.  As if someone could ever get a degree in the Divine.

I've thoroughly enjoyed nearly every moment, nearly every friend (honesty), and nearly every course (only Jesus was perfect) at Duke Divinity.  It has been challenging, downright difficult in fact, and it has even--at times--made me want to quit and go back to playing music for a living.  Music, while a terrible business to be in, can be far more soothing to the soul than attempting to recount every early church heresy for a seemingly silly exam.  I worked hard in undergraduate school to make top-notch grades (in fact, if I had a B at midterms in a course, I withdrew from it if at all possible). At Duke, if I can scrape by with a B, I'm more than happy. 

Duke, as an institution, has changed my world.  At Duke Divinity I learned that worship is so much more than I had ever imagined.  I learned that seminary students drink and cuss just as much, if not more, as any other human being on this planet (they're real people too!).  I learned that basketball is a life changing activity.  At Duke I also learned more about a loving God than I might have ever imagined.  Duke has been a wonderful place for a future minister to grow in their own faith while discerning a call to help others do just that.

Over the next few months I hope to provide anyone who stumbles upon this blog even the smallest insight into what it's like to be changed by an academic environment that teaches about the God who changes us.  It's an odd dynamic to be sure, and one that might take me years to fully comprehend.

One thing is for certain though:  I'm changed.  For better, I hope.  No matter the direction or difficulty of the journey, I'm changed.  

Perhaps I could even say it like this:  I've been made new while studying the God who makes all things new. That's good, right?

Yeah.  It is. If a divinity program, which hopes to form ministers to preach to the world that change and renewal is an essential part of our life of faith, is to be successful then the self-acknowledgment of said minister's own renewal is a necessity of the divinity program. Duke's done a fantastic job of doing that for me.

I'm incredibly grateful. Change. Renewal. Faith.  All large reasons why I will leave Duke acknowledging the importance of my experience there.

-B

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

"Not that": An Observation of 'Contemporary Worship'

The more and more people that I speak with that are at least remotely involved with church life, the more questions come up about my opinion and experience with 'contemporary worship.'   They like to pick my brain, ask my preference, and get a sense for how I feel like worship in the church ought to be.  Yes, they often have their own preconceived responses and notions regarding the style of music used within the Church. The questions range. "What do you think young people are into?" "Don't you think 'traditional' worship is a turn off for young people?" "Don't you think contemporary worship is too hoaky these days?" "Is it possible to plant a church that only uses traditional worship?" "Does Chris Tomlin every write any good songs?" "Don't you think hymns are just boring?" "What's the purpose of the flashy lights? To try to be something we aren't?" "Aren't choirs outdated?"

Contemporary worship, though, is the newcomer in this game.  In many ways, it has to prove itself.  Somewhere around 50 years ago or so, the Beatles invaded America, forever changing pop music and rock and roll. This, along with the decline of mainline church membership in the United States sparked new ideas.  People left the mainline denominations to be 'non-denominational' in an effort to do church differently.  That was the goal: do church differently.  Maybe then, perhaps, people might think about coming back.  If we just aren't 'that,' maybe they'll be more likely to come back.

In a sense, then, Contemporary Worship (with a common low-key liturgy and more culturally-relevant music) became "Not That" worship.  See that stuff the Methodists are doing?  We aren't that.  We're cool.  We're hip.  We're reaching out to young people.  We are meeting you where you are.  You can wear jeans to our church.  That's the way we are.

This type of church is the church that I was born into.  We still were a part of the big Baptist church downtown, but we were open to those who had never been to church before.  We didn't have cryptic creeds.  We didn't have strange liturgy.  We watched movie clips and played slide shows.  We had drama. Our pastor preached from behind a music stand rather than a pulpit.  I was born into a church that was trying to make church relevant to a society that it wasn't relevant to.  What we did, in the early 90's, was to be "not that."  For peope too intimidated or scared to attend traditional worship, we were "not that."  We called ourselves the "Seeker Service" so that those who were 'seeking' could find a place to feel at home.  Too intimidated by the choir robes and organ?  We aren't that.

So, if this is true, and it was truly meeting a need, why aren't all churches like that now?  Why are there young adults begging to go back to the traditional services? Why are large portions of people leaving NOT ONLY the mainline denominations, but also the nondenominational churches?  If being 'not that' was supposed to save the church, why are we drowning more than ever before?

I'll tell you why.  We stopped.

It isn't 1995 anymore. What was hip and cool then is not hip and cool now. What drew people in because it wasn't 'that' then, pushes people away now.  'Contemporary' has become a way of saying 'not that' and it has done so in a permanent sense.  This is why so many 'contemporary' services feel hoaky.  This is why many young people want to return to traditional worship.  This is why when you hear about contemporary worship, you ask yourself if it is emergent or 'contemporary.'   Oddly, those leading the traditional services never went out of their way to reach the young people and different generations; it's very much a "take it or leave it" situation.  Some choose, for many reasons, to take it. Many, sadly, are choosing to leave it.

'Contemporary' was great when it needed to be. But it is stuck now.  Sure, churches like Hillsong and movements like Passion are successful, but by and large 'contemporary' music in many (especially mainline) churches is simply stuck.

'Contemporary' has to move forward. 'Contemporary' has to continue to be what it's high and lofty goal was (an environment that allows those on the outside access to the inside) instead of what its not-so-just goal was ('not that').  It has to be as innovative as it once saw itself being.  It has to live into its title.

In order for us to justify our worship style, no matter how it exists, we need to be able to articulate it in a way that explands the Kingdom.  Otherwise, it has little reason for being. This is true for traditional worship.  This is true for 'contemporary' worship.  Our worship should be creative.  Our worship should be innovative.  Our worship should remind of of who we are.  Our worship should define who we are.  Our worship should convey to those within it that the Church is thriving, moving, changing, and growing disciples. Our worship should be, of course, worship...reflecting the God who breathes life to the people.

We cant have 'not that' from either side.  We need quality, strong, theologically sound worship in both environments (and perhaps more to come).  That's when it finally becomes quality worship and we can **finally** get out of the way.

-B

One Thing My Wife Has Taught Me, So Far.

Three years ago today, I said "I will" instead of "I do."

Since then, Allison and I have lived in residence housing, changed career paths, moved states, found new jobs, gone from a 900 sq ft apartment to a 200 sq foot apartment, both enrolled in graduate school in two different cities on two different campuses, one of us lived on a dairy free and gluten free diet, bought three iPads and five iPhones, had money and not had money, one of us has graduated from graduate school, and we've made the difficult decision to live 9 hours by car and 2 hours by plane away from each other in the coming year. Exciting opportunities, difficult decision.

Because we begin this next year, and because today happened to be our anniversary, I asked Allison if I could blog about what this marriage has meant to me recently. She said as long as I didn't say bad stuff (are there bad things to say?) it was okay.

Marriage has been one of the greatest things one could ask for. It has been everything I thought it would be and much that I wasn't expecting. We've learned how to make decisions together, be completely and utterly honest with each other, discuss fairness, and truly understand how one is the extension of the other. This is why I write today. Allison has taught me many things throughout our marriage, I thought it'd be nice to reflect on just one of them.

As we have been married, Allison has made a career change. She's now committed herself to working in the life of college students on college campuses, trying to make a difference in both organizations and individuals, Throughout my time observing her intern at Florida Southern and then work and be a student here at NC State, I've been able to observe the difference she makes in the lives of her students. She understands something that is crucial for someone in the life of student affairs at the collegiate level: the college experience is about relationships.

When we first moved to Raleigh, I was working at a church outside of Raleigh, leading the music for worship at a new church plant. It was an enriching experience with both highs and lows. I got to know a lot of people and I grew both as a musician and music director. I was new to the game and young and had some incredible mentors along the way. But, I still thought of the experience as a strategic one. What were we going to do to grow this church? What did we have to do to attract people to this church?

Then, this year, I began work as an intern for the Duke Wesley Fellowship. One of the first things I noticed about this group was the fact that they loved each other. They loved being around each other. They were active on campus and loved the true sense of fellowship. It struck me: this ministry wasn't about strategic moves...this ministry was about relationships.

I think that it was about this time that I began to notice this in Allison's work. She talked on the phone with students. She went to lunch with them. She helped them through their struggles, encouraged them, and as necessary, held them accountable to the work they promised they'd accomplish and yet failed to accomplish. She was not only an advisor to them, she was a mentor. This struck me, and it began to be the way that I saw my work with Duke Wesley. Those men's small group times when only two people showed up? They were worth the time. That time when I happened upon a student struggling with the workload? Worth the time I took and the assignment I put on the back burner.

Over the past year I haven't been able to observe Allison work as much as I'd hoped to. But, the short times that I did, the impression that she made on her students astonished me. She truly cares for her students. She makes their college experience about them, and how best they can experience it. She encourages them to put into college what they want to get out. She puts a deep amount of energy into getting to know her students and it shows.

Next year, she'll be continuing her work in another state, back at our alma mater. We will talk over FaceTime, Skype, text, phone, and hopefully a little face to face. As little as I was able to observe her work these past few years, it will be even less in this coming year. But, I've already learned a huge lesson from her that I'm sure to carry with me as I finish up my last year in Seminary, with my RAs, and with Duke Wesley: the college experience is about the formation of the college student. This time in the life of the student is one of the most formative times the student will ever have. As someone employed by the university working one on one with students, your job is to make that as smooth and effective as possible.

I only hope I can hold a candle to the work Allison has done. I always want to see her as an extension of me and me as an extension of her throughout the rest of our lives. I hope that I can be that extension of her in the Triangle when she heads back to Florida. I hope I can care for my students as much as she cares for hers.

Allison, I love you. It's been a great three years together and I can't wait for the rest of our lives.

 

-B

North Carolina's Amendment One: What's God Got to Do With It?

I spent the last two weeks with WAAAAYYY too many United Methodists. Throughout the weeks, those who supported the church removing its statement, "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" wore colored stoles to show their support. The church attempted to reconcile the hurt it has caused to its gay and lesbian members but was unsuccessful at passing legislation that would help mend the wounds. The church then, in a vote of 61% - 39% voted to keep the language currently in its Book of Discipline. When the vote to remove the 'incompatible' language failed, many who support gay and lesbian full acceptance in the church marched onto the floor and refused to leave until the bishops negotiated with them.

Then I came back to North Carolina.

Amendment One has been all over the news here and throughout the country and those voting to defeat the amendment have been adamant about placing signage in their yards. Honestly, with all the promotion I've seen against the amendment, I didn't think it had a chance at passing.

News flash: Bryant underestimates the conservatism in North Carolina.

The best part of any breaking news story in 2012 is the mass amount of Facebook and Twitter trolling that occurs. When Bin Laden was killed, my news feed was split. When Obama cancelled NASA efforts, one would have thought they were calling for his resignation. The same was true today when I watched Amendment One pass with flying colors. Whoa.

My favorite argument: "This is God's plan. This is how God wants it to be."

GOD'S PLAN?!? WHAT DOES God HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THIS? Last time I checked, America was based on personal liberties, the right to not be under some sort of monarchical rule, and the right to not be told what religion to practice.

Friends, as I see it, America gave up on God A LONG TIME AGO. In America we care about free enterprise. We care about wealthy citizens. We care about the American Dream. We care little about the poor. And we, historically, have cared even less about the marginalized. Remember, we are a country that has based people's worth on the color of their skin. We have even based THEIR PRICE on the color of the skin and the calluses on their hands.

America doesn't care about what God wants. America only cares about what America wants.

Which leads me to a strange place with Amendment One. The majority ruled that they wanted marriage to be defined as between a man and a woman today in North Carolina. Fine. That's the way it goes. We live in a democracy where everyone has a right to their own opinion.

BUT PLEASE, OH PLEASE, DON'T BRING God INTO THIS! We gave up on the Almighty a long, long time ago. America was written under the paradigm of personal liberties and rights. And, somehow, we have been about taking away those rights and liberties ever since. It's a strange place to be in. Something tells me, too, that if those voting for Amendment One had taken God out of the picture completely, this vote would have been incredibly different.

See, the Church has a right to decide how it feels on the subject of Sin. It has a right to attempt to define it based on its own Biblical principles and historical teaching. It can do whatever it pleases and it's allowed to use God because she made it in the first place.

But, for America, no.

God's will has little to do with whether a gay man has a right to his partner's body and life insurance after his untimely death. God's will has little to do with whether a lesbian is allowed to know where in the military her partner is stationed. God's will has little to do with gay and lesbian rights in America.

Us Christians are living somewhat of a dual citizenship and our witness is being hurt by the way we throw one into the other so often.

-B

 

I use the term 'America' in substitution for the 'United States' simply because it seems to me to be a bit more pejorative. You're welcome.

A Struggling Quest for Identity #GC2012

I thought about writing my reflections on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church 2012 here. I actually did write my reflections on it, for a class. Below are not those reflections. I figured that anyone reading this likely read my tweets and Facebook status updates throughout the conference's ongoings and is also likely unwilling to listen to me rant about something that to them seems trivial. So, instead, I thought I'd present what I see to be an overarching problem with the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church, as it stands today, has one large problem: it doesn't know who it is.

The UMC (then the many forms of the methodist movement and the Methodist church) was both fortunate and unfortunate to have grown up around the birth of America. This means that values based on personal rights and liberties were, from the beginning of American Methodism, engrained into who the church was. To this day, this influence can be seen. The UMC still practices ways of democracy. The UMC constantly bickers about fairness and control of leading ecclesial (church) authorities. Let's face it: the UMC is a post-Enlightenment church heavily influenced by both the good and bad of American Christendom. It is not the Catholic or Anglican church and, to a very certain extent, is very proud of this reality.

The Methodist church in America has been through trial after tribulation after trial after crisis. Methodism in America has dealt with slavery. It has dealt with civil rights. It has dealt with feminism. It has dealt, and is dealing, with homosexuality. In fact with the exception of homosexuality, the UMC has been a leading charge in America, seeking to bring personal liberties and rights to all. It's as if 'all means all' has been written into a little bit of Methodism throughout America's narrative.

But, recently, Methodism has lost its cultural footing. As a church that once pressed the westward American movement, it struggles now to gain or maintain a foothold in what it used to have significant influence on: culture.

Simply put, the United Methodist Church is not culturally relevant anymore. It's not even, as a whole, socially relevant anymore. My diagnosis, again: it doesn't know who it is.

We've seen this before. After Steve Jobs left Apple (mid 1980's), the company began a downward spiral. It produced tons of products. It ventured into commercial areas it had never been. It tried new things without worrying about quality. It forgot the mission the Steves had set out for it since the beginning: make good products. Jobs used to tell this story about when he got back to Apple (late 1990's) where he asked the employees that had stayed why they had done so. Their response? "I bleed in six colors." (A harkening to the old Apple logo) They, evidently in the minority, could still sort of remember who Apple was.

Jobs used to tell this story alongside one about how he preached the future of Apple to his employees once he returned. He said that it became clear that if it was a zero-sum game and for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose, it was clear that Apple was going to lose. "Apple didn't have to win!" Steve preached. "Apple had to remember who Apple was!" Jobs always said that the only thing Apple focused on was "making great products." That's it. If Apple was under Jobs' leadership, they would be about making great products and little else. Their identity was found inside of making great products. That's who Apple was.

To say that the UMC is not in the same place would be an effort to evade the truth. Little is wrong with the Wesleyan theological heritage of the UMC. Little is wrong with the connectional heritage of the UMC.

What's wrong with the UMC? It doesn't remember who it used to be. It has, because of its love for tradition and unwillingness to move and groove, forgotten that it used to write the American narrative before other groups. It has forgotten that it used to write the culture instead of the culture writing it. It has forgotten that it used to be full of innovation. It has forgotten that it used to be evangelical. It has forgotten that it used to be vital.

The UMC struggled at General Conference over the last two weeks to make any progress toward the future. It chose (because of a host of reasons) to maintain a structural format based off coroporate models that are now half a century old. It chose, in large part, to ignore the essential part of its future: young clergy. With the strange exception of 'guaranteed appointments' for elders, the UMC made very little progress in reshaping who it is and, because of this, must suffer the consequences over the next four years until issues can be brought forth once again.

News flash: four years is too long in today's world. Change was needed and it was needed fast. And it failed, motion after motion, amendment after amendment.

The UMC used to find its identity in strong Wesleyan theology that pushed the culture and innovated before it could. It was able to articulate new, sometimes controversial, ideas better so that the culture understood them in light of Christ rather than in pure Enlightened thought. Somehow, as a church, we have managed to live more into the Americanized version of who we are rather than the Christian version.

The church has simply forgotten who she is.

I fear it will get worse, too, as we become a more global church. As our surrounding culture begins to deal with what it means to have a global economy, it is faced with ways to run the economy. It chooses the easiest, cheapest route almost every time. What a time for the church to lead the way! Perhaps then we wouldn't struggle with the ethical violations! But, the church, forgetting that it used to shape the way, does not. And instead of the world realizing who the world is, the world simply thinks its way is normative. How sad a day.

I feared that change would not come at General Conference 2012. I feared the the church would be stuck in a rut because of its inability to remember who it is. I had little idea however about how bad it would actually be.

'Where's God in this?' you might ask. God's here. Have no fear. The Spirit is moving somewhere. But I don't believe United Methodism to be any sort of sacred thing. It can die. The Gospel will continue on. The Spirit will continue to carry it. The travesty is that the UMC actually has some interesting things to say about the Gospel.

If only it could remember how to say them.

-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):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grA54mwpxPI&w=640&h=385]

 

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

Why Apple's Supply Chain Problem is Such a Big Deal

If you clicked this link, your thought was likely, "Bryant's a fanboy, let's see what kind of spin he puts on this horrific topic." Or, you might be someone who has tweeted to me, emailed to me, or trolled my Facebook timeline with this NY Times article released the other day.

The gist of the article is this: Apple employs hundred of thousands of poor Chinese workers who spend their entire lives connecting cables inside of iPhones for very little pay. The article goes further than that though, too. The article makes the pronouncement that Apple cares very little about the working conditions of their supply chain and you should feel guilty for owning an iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Here's a taste:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

Tim Cook, the newly appointed CEO, made it clear in an email to employees that he was 'outraged' by the accusations that the article made and was deeply offended. It's not hard to see why...The New York Times and Apple have mostly had a very cordial relationship. The NYT's website is included in iOS's default bookmarks and Steve often visited their site first when demoing a new product. The Times was quick to adopt the iPad as a way of releasing their content and the relationship has worked for the betterment of both companies. Everything seemed fine.

Until this.

Even today, the BSR, who is quoted heavily throughout the Times's piece refuted much of its claims. I suspect that we haven't seen anywhere near the end of this.

As a point of reference, here's a short clip of Steve Jobs reacting to the Wall Street Journal's questions regarding the suicides and suicide attempts by Foxconn employees a while back:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gOu50HaEvs&w=640&h=385]

Again, we haven't heard the end of this. As we shouldn't.

The poor workers. They're worked hard, worse than many Americans will ever work, and when Apple wants to lower production costs and raise quality of the products, something's got to give. The media is beginning to claim that the cost of these two desires is human lives and well being. In fact, the NYT titled their piece, "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad."

It's linkbait, but it starts a good conversation. Why is this so important? Why does Apple take the heat?

Sure, it's because theyre bigger than everyone else. That's what got Nike in so much trouble. Sure, it's because they are a hugely profitable company. They made more in profit than Google brought in total last quarter. Sure, it's because people love their products. But I think this has become a bigger deal for another reason.

I think it's because their products speak a bit of hope.

Andy Crouch referred to this phenomenon when he spoke about the gospel that Steve Jobs preached in a piece immediately following Steve's death. I don't agree with the correlations that Andy drew throughout the entire piece, but his general thesis is good. Steve had a different, often better, way of envisioning how a human interacts with a product. (Andy's piece comes off a bit harsh at times, though I know that Andy is an Apple fan because when I saw him speak live once he referred to his MacBook Pro as the true representation of 'perfection' on earth.)

Apple's mindset has always been about Thinking Differently. Using a computer sucked until 1984 when the Macintosh was introduced. MP3 players sucked until 2001 when the iPod and iTunes made it possible to actually enjoy listening to digital music. Cell phones sucked until 2007 when the iPhone finally made a smart phone easy to use. Tablets sucked until 2010 when the iPad reimagined what a tablet was and how humans interact with it.

Steve's quotes. Apple's marketing campaigns. The products themselves. All of these presented nearly hyperbolic statements about what it was like to use an Apple computer and how much there was to love about them. Sites like "CultofMac.com" and documentaries like "Mac Heads" and terms like "fanboy" are signs of the effectiveness of this message. (I'll admit, I often get accused of buying into the Apple gospel more than the Jesus Gospel. I'd argue that that might be because Apple is better at presenting it than our churches are right now, but that's an argument for another day...)

When you use an iPhone, you fall in love with it. Or, most people do. Apple is no longer an electronic company; they become an ideology, a mindset, and a way of life. Apple has engrained this "Think Different" message into our understandings of who they are as a company. When we love their products, we want to believe that the truly are better than everyone else. In every single aspect.

Yet this Foxconn situation seems to be the same as everyone else. I remember getting in trouble at a young age and my first response was to say that 'everyone else was doing it!' To which my parents were quick to point out, "Perhaps, but you're better than that." These poor (literally) workers in these factories are indicative of what is wrong with the world we're in and we'd like to think that Apple can rise above those problems. For God's sake, they've risen above it with all of their products!

I hope Tim and Steve are (were :-( ) right that they are actively working to take greater measures in treating their workers fairly. They're certainly working to spread a good word about how much better they are than many other suppliers. I hope that what they say is true, is true, and that it will continue to get better quickly.

Apple has nearly $100 Billion in the bank. If there is one company who can actually Think Different when it comes to this type of labor ethics, it's Apple. They have the means.

I'd like to see them turn this around. Not just politically. Not just through marketing. I'd like to see them make gigantic strides and stand up for the right and well being of humans.

Because that's what Apple does. They Think Different.

Please, dear God, don't let that thought leave with Steve.

-B

Jesus > Religion (?)

Give the next four minutes to this video, even if you have already seen it. It's best to watch or read things several times in order to think critically about them. And, strap in, this is a long post. I hope you enjoy it, though.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY&w=853&h=505]

It's been 'liked' on YouTube over 160,000 times and 'disliked' on YouTube over 19,000 times. It's been shared on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube time and time again. Most commentary thus far has been divided as to whether or not this 'message' is acceptable. Herein lie some of my thoughts. Feel free to read them, wrestle with them, agree or disagree with them, and challenge them. This is an important topic for our time and we would do well to approach in this conversational way.

I remember going to a Big Daddy Weave Concert. I love them. Soooo good. And they began singing a song, one they covered from another worship artist, "Fields of Grace." In Big Daddy Weave's version of the song resides a line that goes like this:

There's a place where religion finally dies.

And I remember Mike Weaver (the lead singer) prefacing the line by saying, "This is my favorite line of the song." The spirit in which it was sung now seems strange to me. I once was sold on the concept of "relationship, not religion" but I'm now more convinced that that notion cheapens the Christianity that both Jesus and Paul called for.

Which leads me to this somewhat bold statement: The man in the video was too caught up in praise given to him for his skilled rhyming that he forgot to actually check his statements and definitions for consistency.

The problem with the video above is that it seems to go one way...and then another. He claims that Jesus and Religion are on opposite sides of the 'spectrum' but he also points out that your religious affiliation on Facebook doesn't make you a Christian. Wait, what? How are these tied together?

It becomes necessary to define 'religion'. (Good rhetoric makes use of loaded, ambiguous terms like 'religion' and, well, 'Jesus' because you can begin to redefine them in your own way in order to make a point. Not defining them within an argument not only makes the problem worse, it threatens to destroy the terms entirely.)

It seems to me that this man considers 'religion' to mean: a facade that followers put on that masks their spirituality. He's not even close to suggest this. Get religion out of the way because JESUS is what is so important. He seems to be saying that you don't need religion if you have Jesus. In fact, he blatantly says that at the beginning of the piece. He says,

What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?

(I desire to respond: I'd tell you that you were wrong)

If anything, I think, Jesus came to reform religion. Jesus came to correct religion. Jesus came to show humans how to live life. This was a large part of his ministry on earth, including his preaching. Jesus did not come to abolish religion, he came to serve religion. In one sense, he came to serve as a means of growth throughout that life.

So truly, 'religion,' for Christians, is the means by which we worship God and grow further in the likeness of Christ. Religion encompasses sacraments like communion and baptism. Religion involves a confession of sin. Religion encourages prayer. Religion encourages accountability. Religion is a way of life, and a way to grow into a Christ-like life.

Now, his courageous testimony is notable and honorable. I always am moved by people who had a huge transformation toward Christ-like living in their lives and are willing to speak openly and honestly about it. BUT, because he has this...he operates out of a mindset of grace.

Truly, surely, GRACE is a large part of the Christian story. Paul tells us that we are sinful people, in need of grace. Theologians have told us throughout time that that sin is covered by grace. Though it's disagreed on exactly HOW that grace functions, all Christians agree that the life of Jesus, the death on a cross, and resurrection have something to do with the grace required for eternal salvation. Even our friend in the video remarks that salvation is not based on "my merits, but Jesus's obedience alone." AND HE'S RIGHT.

Jesus's obedience to do the will of the Father, to face death, has a great deal to do with our salvation. This, I believe, is true. And I can't name you a Christian who thinks that YOU can earn YOUR OWN salvation. That idea was pretty much outlawed in Christian circles a LONG time ago.

But, he's still confused.

His points are right. We do need grace. That has been taken care of. Christians should live holy lives, not just consider themselves saved because of their Facebook information. Christians should tear down the facades. Christians should be open and honest. Christians should practice grace.

BUT THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT 'RELIGION' IS!

That's the calling Jesus placed on us through his preaching. That's the call Paul placed on us through his letters. That's the calling our pastors place on us every Sunday. Religion, the practice of worshipping and becoming more Christ-like, is defined by all these things that he outlines. Religion is not just perfume on a casket, it is the burial ceremony and the tears shed for the loved one.

So, you've probably reached the same point I have.

He's a good poet. Spoken Word is popular now. Rhetoric is easy to come by with ambiguous language. Good speakers can catch and win over a believing audience just by the tones of their voice.

But this does not excuse us from watching our words.

Statements are bold. And when they're attached to art, they become MORE powerful.

Definitions are important. Because we use them to communicate effectively.

So 'religion,' as it stands, maye be a used up, dried out word that offends people. And...perhaps we need a new word. But people, good people, Christians in fact, use the word 'religion' to speak about how they're growing into a Christ-like life.

And so to make a statement that Jesus > Religion is simply unfair. Jesus and the Christian religion are intimately tied together. Religion is a way of life. Religion is the VERY thing this man is calling for. Jesus did NOT hate religion. Religion is a means to Jesus, and if approached in that way, those liking and disliking the video can actually come upon common ground.

Wouldn't that be wonderful?

As a writer, I can relate to this guy a lot. I often write papers that make awesome points that contribute to the exact opposite of my thesis. I end up at the end of the paper saying, "Wait, where'd I go wrong?"

I just tend to think that this is dangerous for the future of the Church. Influencing this many people and convincing them that 'religion' is wrong is scary. Very scary. We do need Jesus. But we also need prayer. We need accounable discipleship. We need confession of sin. We need baptism and communion. These are elements of religion that most in the Church are unwilling to let go. Because, for them, this is where Jesus is. This "Jesus and Jesus alone" mindset is ok, but only if religion gets included in the definition of 'Jesus'.

-B

Reflections on Branches UMC in Florida City, FL

The Wesley Fellowship at Duke, of which I am fortunate to serve as an intern from the Divinity School, took a small, but strong, group to Branches UMC in Florida City, FL this past week for a winter break trip.  Branches UMC is a United Methodist Church in Florida City, FL (about an hour south of Miami, right next to Homestead).  Most will remember the area in relation to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. To say that Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida is an extreme understatement. Homestead was pretty much wiped out.  Ever since, Florida City, thanks to help from the US government, has had a rebirth of its economy. It's impossible to fully grasp the amount of impact Hurrican Andrew had on the area without being there. Everything, in one way or another, reminds visitors of the devastation.    Branches UMC also houses a mission program within its walls, one of three Branches sites within South Florida. This mission program was our main focus throughout the past week.   For years now, Branches has provided an after school tutoring program for the community's children.  They tutor every child, help them with homework, pick them up from school, and act as a bit of a liason between the church, the schools, and the community. It's an incredible witness to the community because it is a place free of gang violence, drugs, and other issues. It's a large undertaking for such a task, but the staff and volunteers at Branches are there every day, rain or fire, to minister to this community.   As you're probably aware, South Florida is ethnically diverse.  While English is still the "main language," nearly everyone is somewhat bilingual and many businesses operate almost completely in Spanish if at all possible.  But it's not just, English or Spanish, White or Latino, or Latino or Black either.  These generalizations do little good. There are Cubans, Hondurians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Haitians, as well as a representation from every race, country, and nationality.  These people are different than those they see around them and they're conscious of this fact.   Because of this, the large collection of 'illegal immigrants' (more on that term another time), the extreme poverty, and other aspects such as weather and climate, South Florida is a type of place that you may not be used to in any way.  As a white male, though I grew up in Florida, I was very underprepared.   But it's not just race.  It's also class. There are the extreme rich (though most of them live closer to Miami).  There are the extreme poor (many live 10 to a small house). There are those who run their own bakeries (and there are some really good ones), and there are those who can't find work.  There are skilled day laborers that stand on the street waiting to see if there will be any work for the day (and their stories will bring tears to your eyes), and there are those who drive fancy cars and have season tickets for the Heat.  Perhaps our whole world deals with these issues of class, etc, but the racial tensions within South Florida seem to make the problem even more...real.   To make it one step worse (or perhaps in some ways...better) the church burned in 2010.     The whole church, more or less, went up in fire, destroying everything.    And here's where I'd like to dwell for a moment.   Obviously, the fire is a defining moment in the church's history.  But not because it changed them. I see it as definining because of the way they reacted.  From the morning after the fire the pastor, Audrey Warren, stood before the communion table and said, "Don't come for communion if you are unwilling to forgive whoever has done this." Imagine the rage in your heart if everything you had worked for had been burned. Now imagine a complete and utter message of immediate forgiveness.  I think that's what Jesus used to speak about.   This church sings songs with lyrics like "out of the ashes we rise," "you fail us not," and "you're bigger than the battle," in ways that I could never dream to.   They begin worship with the call, "God is Bigger" and respond, "All the time."   Because God is bigger than a fire.  God is bigger than lost computers, guitars, and desks.   And they recognized that.  Immediately.   Because they're here, for a purpose, and are working to do whatever they can to make some sort of difference.  Because it doesn't matter if the parents have 'papers' or not...these kids are in school.  Because the Gospel matters just as much in this church as it does in any other place in the world.   There was a fire. It happened.   But that wasn't so important.  That moment when a child's face lights up because he finally understood it was important. That moment when they came together as a community over a campfire to sing songs about making beautiful things out of the dust was important. That moment when they welcomed strangers on their staff retreat so that they could learn just a little bit more about what they do was important.   Branches is a family. A family of Americorp workers.  A family of staffers.  A family of volunteers.  A family of college kids just trying to have eyes opened toward the work of the Church and future of the Gospel. A family of ministers and those in need of that ministry.   It's an amazing place and you ought to go.   -B

I Hated the Organ Because Of Church (A Confession)

I grew up in a contemporary church world with music played by guitars and four chords.  I went to traditional services and hated every minute because they were 'boring.' As I've matured, I've realized that I disliked many of the hymns not because of their content (although a lot of the language no longer makes sense in today's context) but because the way we sang them was...painful. I've listened to countless arguments on why contemporary, modern music doesn't belong in worship context and I've expressed via this blog before that I think those arguing that are wrong.    I've kind of looked down upon the organ as a legitimate instrument for much of my life. They were expensive (I once heard someone arguing for traditional music yell at me for my use of a Taylor guitar because it was 'lavish'), hard upkeep, and generally boring to listen to. I thought of them as the 'old way,' once used to decorate unnecessarily lavish sanctuaries and provide a huge sound, one that is getting closer and closer to being able to be replicated digitally. And, we can conquer their original purpose with audio amplification.    They were cool I guess, but the church ladies never let me play it, so I had a bad taste in my mouth. You had to have the special shoes. Ugh.   I guess I just thought they were antiquated.    Duke's Divinity School is incredibly fortunate to have a stellar organist in David Arcus,and I've spent time in very traditional services at Duke enjoying his art.   

This guy below, though, changes the game. 

 

I seem to remember being shown something by this guy a ways back, but his art is indescribable here. Watch this three times to get the full effect. 

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ygb-IQNUCJI&w=640&h=385]Don't miss his CBS (old) appearance either. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3ApgF2s3LQ&w=640&h=385]-B

Yes, Use Words When You Preach the Gospel

You can say a lot of things about Mark Driscoll, and I often do, but he is one of the preachers in today's world who is actually using theological concepts in his sermons.  He doesn't sugar coat anything and he doesn't preach simply for the sake of his own voice (though he is often accused of such things).  His sermons are passionate, clear, long, and theological. There's not any fluff in Mark's sermons.     In case there is any confusion, this is the way things once were.  Pastors have served as theological guides since the beginning.  They've described hard concepts for parishioners to get and they've outlined things like salvation so that their understanding of the Scriptures is clear.   Mark may be wrong in many ways, but he is doing what others, recently, haven't been.   Yesterday he said this, in regards to the St. Francis attribution, "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.":   [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tm6j_Bxy6wI&w=640&h=385]Mark's view is clear: The Gospel must be preached, with words.  Demonstration is not enough.  This is not a new idea by any means.  At first though, I was struck by his tone.  I mean, it's St. Francis for God's sake.   St. Francis was all about demonstration of the Gospel.  We remember St. Francis and his lifestyle more than many many who have preached the Gospel.   Mark's understanding hinges around his conception of salvation, and I've made it clear in the past that I don't agree with his concept of elected salvation much at all.   However, I tend to agree with him here.  I suppose that Jesus's command to preach the Gospel is significant, but Jesus's command takes different forms at different points. In Mark, Jesus commands his disciples to enter ministry by casting out demons.  In Matthew, Jesus gives direct command to the disciples after his resurrection to go make more disciples by baptizing them and telling others to follow his teachings. What, then, is ministry truly supposed to look like?    Probably, both and.   I agree with Driscoll.     Not because it might lead to damnation if you don't, but because it is practical for the spreading of the message.  Mercy, hospitality, help, etc are all important for the livelihood of the Gospel. They are things that Jesus and Christian history has spoken of time and time again. But, in practicality, are they enough to spread the Gospel?   The truth is, we communicate with each other through words.  Sometimes these are developed languages, sometime they are little more than grunts.  But we communicate with each other through vocal inflections that we mutually agree mean something.  These inflections help us to understand things.  These inflections help us to understand each other.  These inflections help us to understand our actions.   Evangelism is, I think, a word that was hijacked by those trying to save souls. They used it for all kinds of things: monetary gain, bigger churches, among others.  They used the crap out of it, over and over, even distinguishing themselves from the mainline denominations with it.   I think St. Francis's quote has been used a lot as of late because society has begun to regard evangelists as crazed, religious people who fight with whatever powers they can until their bullhorns run out.  Society hasn't appreciated the Christian television programs because they seem inauthentic.  So, Christians not associated with these people have turned to other ways of spreading the Gospel.  And the quote has found a new home, within people who want to spread Christ's love, and care little about telling people why.   But evangelism is a call upon Christians.  A call for the future of the Church.   And it's a call that some Christians are afraid to approach now because of the connotations of it in our society. And that's a problem.  Less and less churches in America have a steady string of members and attendees. Which means less and less Christians are being formed.  And less and less Christians are being inspired to go and spread the Gospel.  Which means that less and less Christians are hearing the Gospel story.  Which means there are less and less Christians.   Which means that Jesus's command isn't being followed.   We should exhibit works of mercy.  We should also preach, with words.   Both, and.   -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

Duke Music and Arts Festival

Watched this while I waited in the Detroit airport to get to St. Louis.

Raise your hand if you didn't realize that Kara DioGuardi was a Duke Alum.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZBn_oDvUXg&w=640&h=385]

Don't miss Andrew Rohm, a Wesley student, playing the Bari Saxophone at the end.

-B

Goodson Chapel's New Cross

Great video of the new cross recently installed in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity. It was a neat experience to watch the cross be lifted up and talk to the men making it happen. With commentary and explanation from the cross designer and our Chaplain, Rev. Sally Bates.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMsLvtjjKjI]

Next time you're in Durham, make sure to stop by and see it.

-B