The Problem of Donald Trump's Faith

The Donald is at it again. 

 Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In a swarm of unlikely GOP candidates, Donald Trump caps it off by convincing almost a quarter of likely GOP voters that he's the one to go up against Hillary. There's already talk that if Rick Perry gets his way, Donald will personally fund his own third-party candidacy. This would likely rob Republican votes of a worthwhile GOP candidate and almost guarantee a win for the Democrats in two Novembers time. In a world where Fox News has warned its viewership of the plague of political correctness, it's not surprising that a straight-talking, wildly-rich, anti-political Mr. Fix It is attracting a bunch of regular folks who are fed up with the current Administration

At this point, Trump is almost impenetrable. He denigrated a beloved maverick. He read aloud a private cellphone number of a likable bachelor. He, perhaps most dramatically, racially profiled millions of America's workforce. And somehow each time, no matter how much the press has pushed him, he's managed to weasel his way out only to grow in the polls. It is fascinating.

His bit about John McCain at The Family Leadership Summit was untrue, unwarranted, and wildly stupid and though it received, by far, the most media attention, it wasn't the the most remarkable part of that interview for me. I found myself entranced by his comments about faith. Most significantly, forgiveness.

Bluntly, Trump was asked, "Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?"

Trump answered it as Trump always does, as only he can. "That's a tough question. I don't think in terms of...I'm a religious person, shockingly...I'm Protestant, I'm Presbyterian, I go to church and I love God and I love my church." He continued with a story about "the great" Norman Vincent Peale, a man he reveres and whose sermons made a lasting impression on him. Never, of course, answering the question, "Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?"

I love this next part. The moderator didn't let it go. "But. Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?" The audience laughed. Trump responded, stumped. "I'm not sure I have. I just go and try and do a better job from there. I don't think so."

He likely could not have been more honest. While later he rightly referred to taking the "wine and crackers" at communion as a way of asking for forgiveness, there was a certain attitude of humility and repentance that the moderator was looking for to which Trump, truthfully, could not admit. Maybe it's because Trump can't admit to wrongdoing; that certainly seems likely. Maybe it's because Trump thinks he's the greatest man to walk this earth; that seems possible.

I can't help but point to his own admission: his pastor, to which he immediately made reference and shared exuberantly about his influence, may have shaped--or at least allowed--this mindset of Trump. 

To those familiar with recent American history and theological thought, the name Norman Vincent Peale isn't foreign. A controversial pastor after the release of his book, "The Power of Positive Thinking", Peale's teachings were shunned by both the mental health and theological communities being regarded by some as heretical.

Indeed Peale's writings are problematic for Christians who seek not to find faith in themselves but to find faith in Jesus Christ. Even Amazon's description of Peale's best-selling book says it bluntly:

"With the practical techniques outlined in this book, you can energize your life—and give yourself the initiative needed to carry out your ambitions and hopes. You’ll learn how to:

· Believe in yourself and in everything you do
· Build new power and determination
· Develop the power to reach your goals
· Break the worry habit and achieve a relaxed life
· Improve your personal and professional relationships
· Assume control over your circumstances
· Be kind to yourself" 

Seems an odd set of goals from a Christian pastor, eh? It's a self-help book, sure, but its Christian message, if there even is one, leaves much to be desired.

Wikipedia's entry on Peale quotes John Krumm(the book linked above), Reinhold Niebuhr, and G. Bromley Oxnam on Peale's anti-Christian espousing in his book. Wikipedia's choice of quotes from Liston Pope was my favorite though, "There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get out of your difficulties. The formulas and the constanat reiteration of such themes as "You and God can do anything" are very nearly blasphemous." ("The Case against Easy Religion," William Peters. Redbook Magazine, September 1955, pp. 22–23, 92-94). I mean, come on Dr. Pope, tell us how you really feel.

Either Trump needed to name-drop to evade a question about his own brokenness or Norman Vincent Peale made a lasting impact on The Donald through his preaching. The evidence, Trump's refusal to admit to his need for forgiveness, points to the latter. If a preacher preaches that one can overcome the most difficult obstacles and accomplish anything simply by thinking positively about it, how can one be convinced of their own need for redemption and forgiveness?

It doesn't take a political genius to realize that Trump's humility is lacking. I'm convinced, as a Christian minister, that humility and a self-awareness of one's own brokenness is essential to their discipleship. If one claims to be a Christian, as Donald does, one must be convinced of their own need for grace. Without it, there's no point in Jesus.

The problem? GOP voters have already proven in large part that politicians speak louder in their hearts than their pastors do and conservative pastors continually shape the work of their sermons and their reading of Scripture within the political atmosphere. I fear that an influential presidential candidate might renew a sense in America's Christians that one's own humility is not necessary for the gospel.

That is a lie. That is a problem. 

-B


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

Mark Driscoll Briefly Steps Aside to Process, Heal, and Grow

The lead pastor of Seattle megachurch, Mars Hill, provided an emotional statement to his congregation this morning. See the entire nearly-18-minute clip below:

 

I thought the statement was humble, sincere, and emotional. These are all words I would have never associated with Mark before today.

Only time will tell if the six weeks he's chosen to step aside for will be long enough to accomplish his goals. The Mars Hill elders will need time to work through all of the accusations (there are bunches) against him in an appropriate way and a heavy dose of prayer will need to go with it. 

I'm encouraged by his statement, his sincerity, and his use of this space to share this with the world. I had been hopeful that he'd address the controversy earlier than this, and it's likely that the direct accusations against him brought this to a very public head, but all things come sooner or later.

No matter your opinions toward Mark and his ministry, I encourage you to share with me in prayer for this community. Mark and I disagree theologically and socially on most details, but I find it authentic when he and his church preach about the goodness of Jesus and the necessity of pointing the world toward him. This Mars Hill community is one that loves Jesus and does something about it and for that, and their healing, I remain in prayer.

 -B

Dave Blocked Me, Part Two: Some Clarifications

My post regarding Dave Ramsey's dismissiveness to me and the poor has blown up. I never expected such a response. I've had a welcome amount of agreement along with a surprising amount of "I've been there". It seems to me as if Dave and his team make a habit out of closing off disagree-ers by blocking them on social media platforms. As you can imagine, this is both comforting and frustrating for me.

I've also had a fair amount of criticism.  That's fair because when I put something in the public sphere, I don't expect everyone to agree with me. The criticism can be separated into three categories as best I see it. Rather than responding to each and every comment or thread, I thought this post might help. The main critiques are:

  1. I shouldn't have put such a thing on social media to begin with (either the blog or the original tweet).
  2. Dave Ramsey is immensely generous because of his wealth and most churches turn to rich people first in order to accomplish their calling in helping the poor.
  3. Capitalism is not bad and has been proven to be far more successful than socialism in this world. 

I'll attempt to briefly address each critique.  I think these critiques suffer from some presumptions that are American in nature and not, in my view, Christian in nature.

1
I shouldn't have put such an argument on social media. This isn't the first time I've heard such and argument. That's ok. I think the world is still experimenting with what is appropriate in a social forum like the internet and those lines have been both defined and blurred throughout time. For all who say that this conversation is inappropriate to have on the internet, I've got a ton of people who say they appreciate reading this stuff via the same medium. It's both a win win and lose lose situation and as long as I'm willing to put up with the consequences, I'm ok riding that line.

2
Anyone familiar with Dave Ramsey should be familiar with the amount of money he makes. He makes it clear within Financial Peace University that he's a multimillionaire and that he advocates giving as a part of being a financially peaceful. I'll go as far as to commend him for a line he often tells callers on his radio show: giving isn't about percentages or anything else, giving is about giving with a giving heart. Dave advocates giving, especially when you've developed wealth.

But this is a fundamentally American view of wealth. After all, if there were no rich, who would support our moralistic endeavors? This is American in nature because it presumes free market capitalism and few Christian virtues. Funny enough, Dave presents this theory under the guise of scriptural authority in FPU. He quotes Proverbs 21 saying that wise people store up food and oil, fools gulp theirs down. You can only be of help to the world if you have money saved up.

What type of scriptural authority is it though, if it ignores perhaps the most famous exchange about riches in Scripture? The gospel writers tell us that when a rich man was asking the very question of salvation (inheriting the Kingdom of God), Jesus quoted off some laws he must follow. When the man said that he had followed all those laws, Jesus introduced him to one more idea: sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.  After that, he said, come follow me. I don't think Jesus is strictly saying here that you can't have money and be a Christian, but I do think he's making a point: you can't love your possessions more than following Jesus. Christianity does not function under the assumption that we need rich people. Christianity functions under a devotion to the lordship of Jesus Christ and nothing else. This is a fundamental difference between American views of wealth and Christian views of discipleship. 

3
My argument against capitalism isn't that it's unsuccessful. Financially speaking, capitalism makes more rich people. My argument is that socialism helps us equally value each and every member of society based on their worth as a human, not only off their work ethic or success in business. I don't think the United States could ever move to a socialistic form of government or economics (and I don't think Obama is moving in that direction--I think that's largely rhetoric), but as a Christian I can see how socialism mirrors the way God looks at all God's children. I can at least see the holiness in it. The US could not move to to socialistic values for precisely that reason: it values things Christianity does not.

I greatly appreciate everyone's interest in my original post. I reiterate that I find Dave's general principles helpful but that his outlook and general despise for socialism for no other reason than love of money hurts his Christian witness.

 

-B

Dave Ramsey Blocked Me On Twitter

A little background info: A few months back Allison and I took Dave Ramsey's "Financial Peace University" course at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL.  We were greatly entertained by his video presentations, we had a wonderful group leader and group members, and we came away from the experience with a new, fresh set of eyes to the world.  Since the class we have treated money in a very different way, being unbelievably careful in our budgeting.  I strongly recommend the course for anyone with money woes as it appears to me to be the best thing going for getting out of debt, saving for retirement, and becoming financially peaceful instead of financially and persistently worried.

But having said that, a story.

I spent the last three years of my life studying Scripture, homiletics, liturgics, exegesis, evangelism, and more at what major portions of the Christian world might call a "liberal" seminary: Duke Divinity School.  Duke's seminary is far from overtly liberal, but that's a story for another day.

There is, however, a persistent and common theme among many of Duke seminarians' worldviews.  Many who attend Duke's Divinity School (not all, just many) see significant problems with the economic status of this country. Without entering into my best impression of Michael Moore, I'll suffice it to say that Capitalism, as it is practiced in the United States, seems contrary to much of Jesus's teachings about caring for the poor. Capitalism seems antithetical to our command to care for the poor. Capitalism, as they and I see it, exemplifies and glorifies the successful ones making generalizations about the less successful, generally resulting in a lower quality of life for the less successful. Capitalism is economic survival of the fittest and fundamentally less compassionate than other systems.

Due to poor judgment (I guess) and a genuine interest in the financial woes of this country, I make a regular habit out of listening to Dave Ramsey's podcast.  For the most part, The Dave Ramsey Show consists of callers who call in and either 1) need advice on a business or how to get them or a friend out of debt or 2) a family or individual celebrating their new debt-free life with a "debt-free scream".  (I'll admit to getting teary-eyed on more than one occasion at the debt-free scream after hearing the story.)

Every once in awhile though, The Dave Ramsey Show features a belligerent and angry Dave Ramsey who counters any new measure President Obama has made. Or, if he's feeling greedy, any movement of the Left.  Dave takes it upon himself to show his listeners how "stupid" (yes, he uses the word frequently) Obama's "socialistic" ideas are. To Dave, socialism has no virtues.  Spreading the wealth has no business with he hard-earned money.

Dave started into a rant one day about how people asking for higher wages in minimum wage jobs don't deserve a higher pay--their economic value isn't high enough.  He drew a distinction between a person's inherent and economic value.  While the human has value, the market dictates someone's economic value (and therefore their paid wage).  It's free market, capitalistic jargon at its best.

I struggled here.

Someone's economic value is completely separate from their value as a human? The two are not related or interact at all? Is the proper response to the poor a lesson on their economic value? Is that how Jesus responded?

So I posted this tweet when I got out of the shower (I listen to his show in the shower):

I literally didn't even get dried off completely before Dave responded.

I was caught off guard here as I didn't expect Dave to respond. I wondered if Dave and I were referring to the same "Word."  I was imagining he meant the Word Became Flesh. Intrigued, I pressed on.

I was lost now.  There was no way he and I were reading the same Bible.  The Bible I read points to a God who came in the form of a man, in the form of broken humanity, to redeem humanity in new life through death and resurrection, to teach God's children how they were to be, and to present a Kingdom that was unlike any other. Jesus's ministry on earth dealt largely with compassion toward the poor and healing of their often sick and diseased bodies. Never once did Jesus say, "You know, you're poor.  And you're poor because your economic value isn't high enough." This just wasn't clicking for me.

I responded:

Note:  I threw in the bit about giving because I thought we could find common ground.  Dave's class encourages students to build extravagant wealth and then GIVE like no one else. Dave's class encourages his students to cut down their lifestyle to an affordable level, he says, "Live like no one else so that later you can live and GIVE like no one else."  I was attempting to throw him a good and helpful bone.

He responded:

For what it's worth, I believe the Parable of the Talents to be about discipleship in growth of the kingdom, not a study in economics (though he's not the first person I've seen point to it as an economic lesson and I doubt he will be the last).  

And that was that.  Dave, I'm assuming, added me to his increasingly popular "blocked" list. I can no longer follow him and I assume that any @reply to Dave's account will go unseen when coming from my account.  One short seemingly harmless conversation in which a student of Dave's decided that he didn't quite agree with Dave and Dave decided that he never wanted to hear from that student again.  A relationship ended over a disagreement and nothing more.

I learned two things:

  1. If you disagree with Dave, you're no longer a friend of Dave.
  2. Dave doesn't even believe what he says he believes.

Regarding #2, to close.  Every single time a caller calls in to Dave's radio show and asks how Dave is doing, his go-to response is the same: "Better than I deserve".  If Dave is really doing better than he deserves, how can he be so territorial with his own money? He's unwilling to live in a society where the poor can be helped by society at large.

The gospel writers put it this way when they quoted Jesus, "You can't serve two masters...You cannot serve both God and Money."  Dave is attempting to do both.  But in the process, he's devoting to one and disposing of the other.  Just as Jesus predicted.

-B

 

UPDATE: Due to overwhelming and unforeseen interest in this post, I've been fortunate to receive some copy editing from a good friend, Mat Hotho.  If you're rereading this article and things seem smoother, thank him. Thanks to all who have been interested;  I greatly appreciate your support and critiques.

The Death and Life of Kennedy and Christ

As the time has been leading up to the 50th Anniversary of the death of one of our youngest Presidents, I've been thinking a lot about how I "remember" JFK.  I can't, after all, actually remember JFK; I wasn't alive during his time on this earth.  But I took enough history courses and read enough books and watched enough documentaries to "remember" his legacy. It's sort of like a child "remembering" their baptism when they were baptized as an infant; they can't and don't actually remember it, but they can still remember it.

As I began reflecting on what I know about JFK, I realized that a majority of what I know about his Presidency didn't have anything to do with his leadership.  Frankly, when it comes to US history, I'm far more fascinated by the Civil War and World War II than I am the Missile Crisis, and I'm often frustrated about the anti-communism (little c emphasized) sentiment in America that resulted from that time period. Kennedy, as a President, is something I know little about.

I do know some information about his death, though.

Perhaps it's because his death was so dramatic.  Perhaps it's because we have video testament of the moment he was shot (we don't have that for any other assassinated President), perhaps it's because he's the most recent Presidential assassination in America's history, perhaps it's simply because he's a Kennedy.  I don't know why, but I know more (and frankly, care more) about Kennedy's death than his presidency.

Don't be fooled, America does too.  We are this week remembering the 50th anniversary of his death.  We didn't celebrate the 50th anniversary of his election. Years and years of speculation and fact-proofing have gone into theorizing about whether or not Oswald acted alone or if the entire thing was a government ruse. The drama of it all causes us to remember Kennedy's death more than his life (with the one notable exception of our fascination with his mistresses).

It occurs to me that this might be the case with Jesus as well. One look at the vast array of contemporary worship songs will make that point clear: Jesus's death on the cross and that unbelievable image of self sacrifice for the benefit of humankind is one of the prime pieces of material for Christian story-telling (especially in music).

But is that right and proper in and of itself?  Surely God's work in Jesus of Nazareth to save all mankind through the atonement for sins is an incredibly important part of the story, but is it right to focus so heavily on that while neglecting the other pieces of his life?  Is it right to, within the music we sing, focus so heavily on Jesus's death? What might his life show humanity about who God is and what God has called us to do and, perhaps more importantly, who God has called us to be?

It is dangerous to focus so heavily on the death of Jesus if the cost is that the life of discipleship is lost and forgotten in the midst of the drama. In the midst of a dramatic death, it can become far too easy to overlook the blameless life of Jesus the Christ and his ministry, for instance, to the poor and marginalized.

So too would it be improper to focus solely on the life of Jesus, ignoring the grace that was laid upon humanity through Christ's death on the cross. As many theologians have argued many times before, the wholeness of God is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that wholeness is compromised if one focuses so heavily on one portion of that person and ignores the other.  The fullness of God cannot be interpreted without the fullness of Jesus being recognized.

In America, we focus so heavily on JFK's death because it changed the nation and carried its own fair share of drama with it.  But part of that drama was who he was.  His death, his assassination, cannot be understood apart from his life.

Jesus's death changed the world too. But it ought to be acknowledged that his death cannot be understood in fullness without the telling of his life either.  This is why, perhaps, our four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) focus on the entirety of Jesus's being in their retelling of the story that changed the world.

It's important that Christians don't get too caught up in the drama of Christ's death that they miss Christ's ministry in life.  It's important too that Christians don't get caught up in the ministry of Christ's life that they miss the grace which is Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world.

One without the other is incomplete.

-B

God's Not Dead

Sometime soon a new movie will release. It's named after a song that originally held a different title and features a band that only licensed the song; they didn't write it.

The movie "God's Not Dead" is named after The Newsboys (but really, you can't have The Newsboys without Peter Furler, can you?) cover of a Daniel Bashta song which was actually made famous at Passion one year (I was in the room for its debut) by David Crowder. Crowder debuted it (if Daniel Bashta's twitter feed is to be believed, he was unaware of the song being used) as "Like a Lion." To the best of my knowledge, Bashta's recording of it wasn't even publicly released yet. He later came out with his own recording, but it was Crowder's use of the song that made it popular in worship circles. Our praise band did a tour of sorts in the summer of 2010 and we closed every night with the piece.

I say all that because The Newsboys changed the title of the song when they debuted it. Instead of "Like a Lion," they called the song "God's Not Dead" which, to be fair, is the prominent line in the piece.

But then they debuted a music video for the song which prominently featured newspapers with the headline "God is a Myth" changing to
"God's Not Dead" by the end of the video.  The song, once proclaiming a message of resurrection and revival within one's life of faith and using the helpful metaphor of Christ's resurrection from the dead to do so, has been repurposed by The Newsboys marketing team to stand for an argument for God's existence against those countering such existence. I like Michael Tait (and I was so glad they invited Kevin Max to provide vocals for the bridge...hearing Michael and Kevin's voices together is such a treat for a true dc Talk fan) a lot and his music has served as an inspiration to me for years, but this song has now been repurposed and this changes the implications.

Repurposing is ok, I suppose. After all, there are many within the world who do claim that the existence of God is folly and that faith in something that doesn't exist is a waste. There are voices among us that claim that Christianity is all made up. So, the necessity of fighting against those voices is easy to see for an Evangelical; the voices threaten my very reality.

But there's a trend here and I think the use of language is dangerous. Within the very-well-produced-for-a-Christian-movie's trailer, appearances are made by actors like Dean Cain and TV personalities like Willie from Duck Dynasty. The trailer portrays a student whose philosophy professor makes him write a paper presupposing the deadness of God. As a Christian, the student is forced to defend his faith within the classroom by putting God on trial because he, as a Christian, must prove God's existence. He, as a Christian, is being persecuted by the professor.

Persecution is the point here, isn't it? If you read through the film's Facebook page, you'll get that feeling. "Share to prove them wrong" or "Share if you're not ashamed" light up the main feed. Of course, like sheep, the film's many fans share and share and share and share. Because the liberal world is trying to tell us that God doesn't exist. Because we are being persecuted.

The problem with this is that this language is difficult to repurpose without consequence. Philosophers and theologians HAVE put God on trial before. Some posited that God died in Auschwitz. Blacks in America doubted the reality of a good God because the white plantation owners understood the slaves as being provided BY God. Many many bad things have happened in God's name since Christ's resurrection including persecution after persecution.

And so, if persecution is the point, what does it mean to portray that in a film with a bunch of white middle class Americans trying to fight the liberal academy by proving God's existence? Who do we think we are to even come close to knowing what TRUE Christian persecution is? We can't. We can't. We can't.

So the song "Like a Lion", intended (clued in by its naming by Crowder and Bashta) to serve as a recognition for an inner revival for the soul gets repurposed by the Evangelicals to prove God's existence and in the meantime shows the Evangelicals cards completely.

The song begins, "Let hope arise and make the darkness hide." This hope, as we understand it in Christ Jesus, is a hope that defeats death and sin. The darkness to be hidden is the sinfulness of our own actions.

But in this film, in the Newsboys interpretation of the song, and in the Evangelical mindset, the darkness is the Liberal Left.

The cards are completely exposed.

-B

Change, Community, Communion, and Curation

It often seems unnecessarily radical to change one's ways of doing things.  When systematic ways are changed, either by brute force or previous failure, many many react negatively.  This is happening in Congress as the GOP-controlled House fights against the already-lawful-and-upheld-by-the-Supreme-Court-as-constitutional Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It's something different, very different, being treated with hostility because of its difference and perceived (and somewhat realistic) hardships.  

Difference and change are difficult for so many to comprehend.

There are viable reasons for this. Many arguments made against Obamacare are valid and backed up by numbers and inevitable cost to typical Americans. In many ways Obama will take more money from each American in order to make health insurance for all Americans a reality.  It is very different from how America has traditionally treated her citizens since her beginning.  Valid concerns are heard, but change keeps on trucking.

The thing about change, historically, is that it is easily delayed but essentially unavoidable.  It only can be re-steered to go in the "proper" direction. Change is inevitable; direction of that change is somewhat controllable.

[Quick change of scene.] 

As a United Methodist, I have a common joke I make about our church: we are always 20 years behind.  It's only a joke but it strikes a strong chord on the reality guitar.  Take contemporary worship music for example.  Simply put, the United Methodist Church, for better or for worse, ignored the contemporary worship scene for years upon years.  "Contemporary" worship music pushed through the evangelical and hippie-ish movements in the late 60s and early 70s and began to refine itself in the mid-late 80s and early 90s.  Evangelical churches (read: non-United Methodist churches) were often the first to jump on board.  There might be many reasons for this, of which the fact that many of those churches do not submit to any larger governing body ought to be at the top, but evangelical churches by and large beat Methodists to this punch. United Methodists have moaned and groaned about how badly the music is written and how non-theological the lyricism is ever since, but the general public has seen some churches grow and some die.  United Methodist churches have been on the dying side of things far too often.

We are late to the game and they seem to be "winning." How to combat this then? Well, of course: We have to raise our numbers so that our church doesn't die! We must start a contemporary worship service! How then do we do that?  Well let's look at some resources.  Where are these resources?  Oh great, there are tons of resources available!  There is tons of music available! Who is providing this music? Oh! The Evangelicals. Great!  Let's hire a worship leader!  Great! Most of the good worship leaders are at the evangelical churches, so we'll get the pretty-good ones.  They should be able to lead the United Methodist Church into the next generation of worship! Great! This is going to be so great! 

And, what do we end up with?  We end up with a church whose tradition of well-written, theological singing is nearly lost because in the switch to the new medium/genre, we picked up someone else's tradition and theology simply because it was already there for us. We blindly took the cookie left for us without considering the consequences. Change came and we got on board and took the road-too-often-traveled without considering where it was taking us.

20 years behind, then, may mean that we need to curate a bit more than we'd expect.  What's the trade-off of simply using someone else's work?  What's the trade-off for our congregations and disciple-building? Have we fully examined this change, its constant insistence upon itself, and where our destination lies?

The same has happened in online communities.  Online communities, if you can believe it, are old now.  They began, essentially, with the advent of email and have continued to be refined and refined over time. What one sees in Facebook, and all Facebook is meant to be, is simply and refinement (albeit a very well done refinement with its share of quality innovations) of the original idea of communicating and communing online. Online communities may seem like a new thing to people (and maybe especially to United Methodists) but they're simply not.  Hey, United Methodists, you're late again.

And so we pick up where we left off. Many non-UMC churches are offering well-done online churches in which a church attendee can log on, converse with a online pastor, watch the worship service, and even pray online with the guidance of the pastor.  The difference is, of course, one doesn't feel the pastor's hand on your back as you pray; she's generally miles away from you.  This sort of idea isn't new, it's simply new to United Methodists.  A popular church in Florida is doing just that (a high school friend of mine is heading it up...you can check it out at www.engagemenow.net).  

The new conversation (happening right now in Nashville, TN) is whether or not United Methodists ought to offer the sacrament of Holy Communion over the internet.  Practically speaking, it's exactly as it sounds.  The viewer (and I use that term intentionally) provides their own bread and grape juice (or wine), while the pastor blesses the elements through your computer or TV screen.  It's along the same lines as that pastor praying over you but without being able to physically feel their presence...except it's with the sacrament of communion.

Perhaps this is an controversial concept to speak about because many of the other churches don't hold communion (Eucharist) in the same regard as United Methodists (or, if we're speaking honestly, maybe many of them actually hold it in HIGHER regard simply due to their insistence on the frequency of participation in Eucharist) . In other words, maybe Methodists are trying to graft United Methodism onto a medium and evangelism technique that someone else, someone different than us, already created. The difference is that the penalty for moving in that direction on that road of change is a loss of traditional practice that has been important to Methodism. In my mind, it's not much different than us trying to sing that one song and trying to change the lyrics because the song is so...like...Calvinist. We couldn't write a comparable one!  We just have to graft Wesleyan theology onto whatever trends come because we were late to the game and not innovative enough to pull ourselves out of the hole.

Goodbye, Wesleyan sense of community.  Goodbye, Wesleyan understanding of Jesus's presence in the Eucharist and the necessity of physicality for incarnation to be experienced.  Goodbye, sung Wesleyan theology with an emphasis on the unending and unchanging love and grace of God. 

I'll maintain until I die that change is inevitable and good in this world.  But, change comes with responsibility.  Change comes with the need for curation.  Change also comes with the need for innovation and outside-of-the-box mentalities. And, while all those seem so poorly connected, it is indeed necessary that they all work together cohesively so that the good parts of what we have are not lost. The danger of Calvinistic theology creeping into Wesleyan churches--even if only through the music--is, and has been, upon us.  The danger of cultural definitions of "community" and "experience" is creeping in on us and our livelihood is at stake.

Online communities are coming.  The challenge and calling is there for churches to attend to.  People want religion and they want to be online.  Ignoring it seems silly and simply jumping on the bandwagon blindly seems sillier. Change is necessary and inevitable.  Curation and innovation are necessary and often forgotten.

Let us not be so persuaded by a new movement that we forget who we are.  Maybe, just maybe, we can feed a need within our society in a new and better way.

-B

 

We Run Things, Things Don't Run We

I'd say that in general I care very little about Miley Cyrus's life.  I suppose I'd like to see her be a positive role model on my future children but because that isn't a current reality of mine, I generally don't care much about her. Her new song, "We Can't Stop" has a catchy hook though so I turned up Spotify when it came on.  So that you don't get bogged down in the disgrace that is the song, I'll sum it up for you: Miley owns the world and she doesn't care if you care. 

I'll say it: Hannah Montana is creating a whole new persona and its first name is "badass." But what do I care?  She has friends, they like to party, they're poorly influencing America's youth, and they have poor grammar.   As a concerned citizen with children I'd care, but I reiterate: Miley's life really doesn't concern me much.

But then I heard these lines:  

To my homegirls here with the big butt
Shaking it like we at a strip club
Remember only God can judge ya
Forget the haters, cause somebody loves ya

Oh! Miley's a theologian now. Now her life concerns me.

I've been bothered recently with liberal America's approach to ethics and morality.  Actually, that's not quite accurate, I've been bothered with liberal Christian America's approach to ethics and morality.  Given that Miley is a baptized Southern Baptist and is outspoken about her support for gay marriage, I'll assume that she's part of that club.

In liberal Christianity, the jump to "Only God can judge ya" is, in my opinion, made far too hastily.  The line is often used to justify our earthly actions that society may deem as "wrong."  Because the Bible, as many people read it, is inconsistent about exact sins, those arguing for progress in America often fall to this simplistic thinking and when those people are Christians the situation gets messier.  It's reactionary too.  Conservatives tell a gay couple that their actions are sinful in the eyes of God but it feels natural and right to the gay couple so they result to "Only God can judge us."  It's a decent starting point maybe but the line is unhelpful in continuing a theological conversation about a very important topic.

When I read Scripture and hear it proclaimed in worship, I don't understand God to be one who calls for a world in which people do whatever they want however they want whenever they want and just wait for judgement day to find out if they were on the right path or not.  There's no participation in salvation in that scenario and there is certainly no growth into holiness.  This runs along neo-Reformed thinking and scares a disciple like me who longs for the world to move in a holier way and requires action (due to God's grace) on the part of the Christian. There is perhaps "progress" there, but it doesn't seem to be holy progress.

If one wants to argue for things like gay marriage in the church, the conversation (at least in the Wesleyan tradition) must be framed theologically and, along with that, within the realm of holiness and salvation.  In the VERY least, the argument about the sinfulness of homosexuality ought to be centered around how we are created and not that we can "just do whatever we want." The Scriptures must be wrestled with for liberal Christians.  The teachings of the Church throughout time must be wrestled with.  But everything, no matter the direction of the conversation, must be contained within a framework appropriate for the conversation.  Otherwise, we Christians that seek inclusion and equality are faced with a temptation to leave the Christian framework completely.  That's a no-no.

So Miley is encouraging this "No one owns me and I can do whatever I want" attitude.  Fine.  It's not ideal for the youngsters of America (frankly, it's downright terrible) and her culture writing insists on a degradation of our youth.  Fine.  I could approach that another time (and we should).  But, it seems to me that Miley is perpetuating a mindset that is unhelpful for Wesleyan Christians.  If we insist and believe that we can (by the grace of God) participate in our own salvation, we must reject the simplistic and unhelpful line, "Only God can judge me." Judgement and accountability by the community (the church) are integral parts of discipleship. 

Miley, put on some clothes.  Your dad watched that video. 

-B

 

The Dangers of Singing About a Dangerous God

I heard this song on Spotify's radio this morning.  That link is a Spotify link.  In the event you don't have a Spotify account, I'll drop the YouTube video here as well.  It can be found to the right.

The song is "God of The Angel Armies" by Jonathan David Helser.  The chord charts to the piece can be found here. 

When Chris Tomlin's "Whom Shall I Fear?" appeared on the most recent Passion album, I asked a question similar to this one on Facebook, "Is anyone uncomfortable with the blatant military language being used in this song?"  I got a mixture of reactions from my Facebook friends.

The themes of both Tomlin's song and Helser's song above are much the same: there are enemies against us, God is stronger, we have nothing to fear.  It's a typical and empowering refrain. Tomlin even uses it in the unquestionably popular "Our God" where he uses the Apostle's word in writing "And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?"  The question I posed on Facebook, though, was something different.  Is the militaristic language in the song helpful to the modern world who has seen the damage of things like the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb?  Perhaps, asked differently, this question might capture the sentiment better: If violent language is readily and repeatedly used to relate God to humanity so that we might better understand God, are we faithfully developing and promoting the fullness that God shows to the world through Christ?

The initial reaction many have to such a question is to provide evidence of violent imagery within the pages of Scripture. "God is violent, " they say.  "How can we understand God's power and might without being faithful to the violence found within God's Word?"  This is, in my reading, a fair assessment; throughout the powerful words of Scripture, we are faced with a God who uses brute force, if need be, to get God's way. After all, God has been known to wipe out entire cities...even the entire world...if he has become convinced that the world is in need of a change and return to his ways.

I preach a lot of peace on Facebook.  I'm constantly arguing that weapons, especially guns, are fundamentally bad for us and that Christians are called to live a different life in which Jesus's message of nonviolence brings peace to the world. In the midst of these conversations, I have to be careful to not do what Marcion did, accept one version of God over, and even at times against, another.  I'll admit that I struggle with letting Jesus's words to Peter in the garden supersede the words of God to Joshua outside of Jericho.

But I return to my question, is the fullness of God and Jesus's message overshadowed by a repetition of God's almighty nature? Is it helpful for Christians to sing songs about the "God of Angel Armies" post atom bomb? Or, more accurately, is it helpful for Christians to sing songs about the "God of Angel Armies" in a world where violence is seen as the sole solution to persecution of liberties?  This is where I think I'm beginning to draw the line.

Violence, in this world, is the way in which we understand how to get our way.  If an intruder enters our house, we are allowed to shoot them if we feel as if our life is at risk.  That's called self-defense.  At an extreme level, though, it is using violence to combat violence.  Violence is also how we seek out our enemies.  If a country wants to grow, say in the 1930s, it uses military violence to expand its land property and "save its economy." If dissenters are opposed to the work the government is doing to "better" their lives, the dissenter is shot (violence) in the street. Violence is the way in which we have learned to communicate in today's world.  To get what we want when we want, we often resort to violent means.  At a basic level, this is the foundation of terrorism.

Consider terrorism for a minute. What is it that we are opposed to about terrorism in America?  It's not the dissenting voices; we believe in freedom!  We are opposed to terrorism because of what separates terrorism from freedom of speech: violence. However, we respond to the terrorist's violence by sending hoards of troops overseas to seek them out, murder them, and bomb them. Violence is not truly bringing peace, it's teaching violence (we're just too blind to see that the American definition of "peace" is too narrow). 

We Americans get to see this.  We get to see the response to violence with violence.  We see it on the nightly news and hear the means of justification from Obama's mouth.   We do it all in the name of liberty.  We do it all in the name of freedom. 

And then, just days after we see this on the news, we go to church and sing a song about how great God is; God is so great that he is above everything and can defeat everything. We even use the word "army".  And suddenly, without much warning, our American definitions of freedom, liberty, justifiable violence, terrorism, and God mix with our Christian understandings and they all collide into one message that the worldly violence we see on TV is the only way God can get what God wants. We've placed all these things into one lump understanding.

How much, though, is the confusion of terminology affecting the way we understand God, God's grace, and how God gets what God wants? 

Ironically, I'd like to suggest this: the song, because of the worldly context its sung in, is doing the opposite of what it's trying to do. While trying to proclaim that God is almighty, ruling over everything and able to conquer all, it cannot successfully and adequately do just that because of its limiting language which is equating God's power to solely violent means.

 

People Change. I Fear My Own Change.

I've been meaning to write this for awhile.

I believe in human change. I believe that humans, no matter their upbringing, are able to change who they are. As a Christian, who has seen the change that God can make in an individual's life, I believe in change. As a Christian I believe that God's grace can show a child of God (all of us) who we truly are, so that we might set eyes on God alone, the one with the power to transform. Our hearts are aimed inwardly, God can change such a heart.

Humans can change not only for the better, however. They can also change for the worse. We've seen that all throughout history. People who have been known to destroy the world with their power and violence were often unrecognized as violent people previously. We see this in some of the mass shootings too. How many of the mass shooting criminals were caught beforehand? After, we often hear family and friends say, "He was quiet, but I could have never foreseen something like this," or "He was a good kid, made jokes, etc. How could he even be capable of such a thing?" This is true in immediate history as well as we all watched Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's parents claim that America had framed their children for this tragedy. A parent can rarely imagine their child doing that much harm.

At the heart of this issue is something we know deep down inside our souls: people change. Some people grow up in loving households with loving parents. Then something happens. Something makes them angry. Something depresses them. They become passionate about something. They play a violent video game. They begin to dream.

And one day they walk into a high school and kill 12 of their classmates. Or they mail a box of evidence to NBC news. Or they walk into an elementary school and open fire. Were there warning signs? Sure. There always are. Did the signs go unnoticed? Sure. They often do. Because of the lack of friends, a parent's unbelief that their child would be capable of something like that, or the busyness of others' lives, blind eyes are often turned and terrible tragedy strikes.

There is much discussion as of late as to how to prevent such tragedies for fear that if we don't do something it'll happen again. As it has over and over and over again. Many supporters of personal gun rights argue that the problem isn't the weaponry itself. They have a compelling argument; after all, guns require human intervention to actually inflict harm on another being. If legislation involving guns, however, is not feasible because of Second Amendment guarantees, those wanting to stop such violence turn to other means.

Many pro-gun people are advocating that mental screenings ought to come into effect at the point of gun sale. This seems helpful to me. If we can stop someone who is mentally unstable from purchasing a dangerous weapon, perhaps it will not only save others' lives but it will save theirs as well. What about, though, a person owning a gun for years before they use it to mow down a classroom of elementary schoolers? What about a mother who stores the guns in the violent child's bedroom? What about a grandfather passing a gun down to his grandchild just for his grandchild to develop depression later in life and decide to take life into his own hands?

There are many, many questions. None with perfectly viable solutions.

At the heart of those questions above though is the principle discussed previously: people change. If a weapon exists that allows them to cause damage and they're able to get the weapon before they go crazy, or through other means who won't ask them about their craziness, what is the solution? The NRA suggests that more gun owners would mean a safer environment. But if more people, who have the potential to change from good to bad, own dangerous weapons, doesn't that mean that the potential for more bad people to have dangerous weapons is there? Couldn't a good person with a gun, under the right circumstances, turn into a bad person with a gun? Isn't the issue, then, in some sense the gun itself? Isn't there a point in which we realize that the weapon simply isn't good for us?

We cannot control the change in people. America is a society where the winner wins and the loser gets screwed. America is a society where community is only valued in nationalistic sense and where someone who does us harm or simply doesn't fit in is written off in an instant. America simply isn't set up to care about the change in people (see how criminals are treated when they're released from prison as an example). If America, then, can't prevent a change from good to bad in its citizen, what then can it do?

People ask me why I'm "anti-gun" all the time. The answer is simple, really. I'm scared of this change. I'm scared of the change in me. I recognize my own brokenness. I am what I consider to be a "good person" who "could never do something like that." I have no history of violence. I passed my psychological exam for ordination. I'm a normal guy who cares for people, loves his family, and wants less people to die in the world.

And yet I fear, under the right circumstances with the right tools, the damage I could do...due to my own brokenness.

Further, I think anyone who denies that their brokenness couldn't, given the right situation, get the better of them is fooling themselves. And they're not familiar enough with Peter, who is the rock upon which the Christian church was founded yet who denied Jesus three times, raised a sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, and who Jesus referred to as Satan and an obstacle.

People change. It's time that we realized that. And cared. We can't prevent every human being from being violent in the midst of their change. We can't prevent them from changing. What we CAN do is affect the damage done during such violence, hopefully resulting in less people dying.

That's all I want. In the midst of change, I want less people to die.

-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

To Whom Much Is Given, Much is Required

I'm not positive where that phrase came from. Someone with more energy than me should do the research.

To be honest, I've never really given the phrase much consideration. The world, from my view, has always cared only for itself and its own success. That is to say that those who make most of the difference in the world likely care only about their own popularity, their own success, and how well they can do. Maybe instead of "world," I should say, "America." However, my statement above is also to say that we are inherently a self-centered people. So, maybe it is the whole world.

In my constant pursuit of turning the world against itself via Facebook posts I have stirred some controversy over the past week. During the Super Bowl, I posted a criticism of Beyonce's halftime performance and made some pretty bold (and probably unfounded) claims about her reversing the work that had been done for equality in both black and women's rights by forming her artistry in a sexual manner. Of course I posted it at the exact right time, at the exact right place (during the world's most popular time to engage social media--the Super Bowl--and on my Facebook page, which inevitably is the home of unrighteous and righteous dialogue about the wrongs of the world). The post blew up almost immediately and I was told by several people whose opinions I greatly respect that my thoughts were unfounded because of my white maleness. "She is empowering those like her, reclaiming sexuality, I am proud" they essentially said.

Today news broke that a fraternity on the campus in which I live hosted a party on February 1st whose theme and advertising were overtly racist. While more people were in support of my criticism of such a fraternity's action than they were of my critique of Beyonce, the post still engaged a conversation. I knew that friending all those people would pay off. While in class today, I saw a classmate reading about the party on none other than Yahoo News. "Great," I thought, "Duke University once again makes the national news scene because some smart but oh-so-stupid undergrads made some awful decisions."

"What's the impact of the national stage?" I wondered. And then it hit me. This is not too unlike my critique of Beyonce's performance.

My argument over Beyonce's halftime performance was based around her potential as a performer. If she really has the "power," as many have suggested, then she has the "power" to make a significant impact on the way our culture views things. It seems to me that one of the messed up understandings in our current society relates to sex. We live in a world where more high schoolers are pregnant than ever before. Pornography is one of the larger industries in our society. Sex Slavery is a real thing in America. Our daughters, sisters, and friends are literally getting sold to the highest bidding John. Pastors, teachers, policemen, and politicians are arrested more often than we'd like attempting to have sex with underaged minors (males and females) after soliciting it online. Like, really...they actually show up at the house. Our society is in a sexual crisis. The way to fix this, to me, doesn't seem to be being scantily clad (no matter how well you can wear it) on a national stage, dancing in a semi-erotic fashion. Beyonce is an incredible performer, few doubt that. She has a large audience (some might argue, the largest) these days. She, having built much of her career on her strong sense of sexuality (she's gorgeous and sexy and shows it), has the potential to make a change in this culture. My argument is that she didn't.

The same might be true of Duke undergrads (and administration). Duke is an elite university which fluctuates between an 11% to 13% acceptance rate. Students who score a 1400 on their SATs (on a 1600 scale) are the dumbest kids here. Duke students are often the future leaders of our economy, our churches, our political system, etc. Duke University has a huge national stage. And guess what, friends? Greek life, and college partying in general, is in a bit of a crisis in our culture. Duke, whether it be the students or administrators, has the potential to make a huge impact on the surrounding culture. Duke University could have put an end to the "Asian Prime" party. Duke University could have come down hard on these groups and partying years ago. My argument is that they didn't. And, based on the past, they likely won't.

When someone or someones have prestige and popularity, they have the potential to influence a self centered world. When they don't, it becomes harder and harder to have hope for the future of our society. Christians, since Christendom became a thing, have had that worldwide stage. We have miserably failed to affect that change in the culture because of our own self centeredness and brokenness. Societal change often relies on those who have been given much.

I honestly don't expect much of that change from those enslaved to album sales or popularity, or 18-22 year olds who have had much of their life handed to them. Christians can do better. Because we have been given much.

-B

Macklemore's "Same Love"

I'm a sinner. At least, that's something I believe.

Every week, heck sometimes even multiple times a day, I pray a prayer in church that recognizes that sinful nature and confesses it before God and our neighbors. Then, as one whole body, those gathered partake in the meal that Jesus instructed us to partake in. It's a bit of grace, reconciliation, confession, mercy, atonement, and love all rolled into one mysterious experience that Christians have been sharing together since Jesus Christ himself.

We live in a society where sinfulness is celebrated. In much of the secular world, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to act in a certain way.

The only thing that holds one from acting in a completely "wrong" way is the fear of the consequences of their actions. The world acts within a framework of consequence. In example, if I'm willing to be held to the consequences of my actions...that's something I am totally ok with...then I can act however I'd like. The individual becomes the standard for what is "right." How else is it to be judged? Respect the individual because they are being themselves.

Now, look at this individualism in a different light. From this comes respect for the individual comes a respect for the unique. This, perhaps, is something a bit more modern. If someone challenges the status quo in today's society, they are looked up to for their courage and uniqueness. There was once a time in our society that if you didn't conform to the status quo (either in your very being or your thoughts and actions), you could be tried and killed.

So, to recap: sinfulness is celebrated in our society now because the only standard against which actions are judged is the willingness of the "sinner" to accept the consequences of their actions. That's the secular world. The reason that this is the judging standard is because individualism is the dominant force and uniqueness is celebrated. This is the secular world. This is the world of Macklemore's "Same Love."

Many Christians argue that this is bad. They argue that the standard against which we ought to be judged is God. The closest tangible evidence that we have of God's standard is the Bible. Hence, they argue, the ways of the world ought to be judged by what is outlined in Scripture. Since the beginnings of Christianity flowed out of Judaism and Judaism was ruled by a "Law," they argue that the words of Paul and many other biblical writers ought to hold the world to account. Paul was against homosexuality, they argue. Therefore, homosexuality in the world is wrong. It's unnatural. It's unbiblical. It's just wrong. This is a different language than the one Macklemore is speaking.

Macklemore, in his song "Same Love," argues against the "paraphrasing of a book written 3500 years ago." He argues against a church preaching hate. He argues against the idea that it's a changeable thing. He argues that the "right winged conservatives" are "playing God." The hook of the song says, "I can't change...even if I tried, even if I wanted to...my love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm." The individual wins, here. "Just be yourself," Macklemore raps.

The church doesn't speak that language and it never really has. The church has been in the business of telling an individual that how they act is wrong. That it's keeping them from God. That it's sinful. That they need to change in order to follow Jesus and live into holiness. The church speaks a language of sin. And, now, perhaps more than ever before the world is speaking a language of uniqueness. A language of the individual. A language where the understanding of something being "wrong" is reliant completely upon the individual and their level of comfort with the consequences of their uniqueness. Two different languages.

Because so many Christians today live in the "individual" world and yet still belong to the church, the conversation, the argument, goes in circles. It tears us apart, eats us up, spits us out, and leaves us for dead. The conversation even hurts souls.

How, then, to mend ourselves? Ah, yes. Remember what I said? I'm a sinner. A perpetual sinner. One who (at least) weekly comes before God to confess my own sins before I partake of the grace that Jesus conveys. Sometimes I know my own sins. I'm aware of what I've done wrong. Many times (in fact, probably more times than not) I'm unaware of all of my sins. And yet, not even knowing all that I've done wrong, I come before God routinely to confess and pray for forgiveness. I pray that I may be joyfully obedient. The best part? It's not just me. It's the whole church coming before God for such a task. The whole church coming to confess our sins and pray for forgiveness.

It seems to me that the conversation over homosexuality is not one of just individualism. It's not one of just sin. It seems to me that the conversation in the Christian church over homosexuality is both. It's a conversation over a dinner table of bread and wine, where all at the table confess their sinful nature and are gravely aware of the significance of the meal. They're aware of themselves. They're aware of their brokenness. They're aware of the grace offered to them and the call on their lives to be better.

"I can't change" the song says. "Even if I try. Even if I wanted to."

Well, then, thank God for grace. A trust in that grace might result in a holier community: a community that can understand sin in light of the individual and the individual in light of the sin.

Macklemore is speaking the language of the individual standard. The church is speaking the language of the biblical standard. If we are going to keep this issue from tearing our churches apart, we're going to have to learn the language the other is speaking and figure out a way to understand each other. I bet if we tried it, God's grace would step in and help us out. Then, and likely only then, could rappers stop rapping about how awful the church is and the church could stop condemning people with a speck of dust in their eye.

Grace has got to be the key.

-B

If you're lost, you ought to watch this video. It's touching: http://youtu.be/hlVBg7_08n0

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

The Church and The Gym

I once heard a pastor compare joining a church to joining a gym.

I grew up in the church. I was a good little Baptist boy, baptized at a relatively young age, who sang in the children's choirs, youth choir, youth praise band, and yes, when I was empowered, the big church praise band. My family went, primarily, to the contemporary service as my parents were actively involved in the planning and execution of it. Church was fun. I enjoyed going and I can't remember a time in my life when I gave me parents a hard time about going. I was into church.

Moreover, I spoke the language. Christians who are deeply integrated into the life of the church likely know exactly what I'm saying. In the church, we talk about things that the outside world isn't too concerned with talking about. We talk about grace, holiness, and judgment. We sing songs directed toward and about Someone not of this world. In the church, we speak a different language. As a kid who grew up in the church, I spoke the language. I knew what to do and when to do it.

Growing up I wasn't particularly concerned with athleticism (shocker, I know). I was an inside kind of kid who enjoyed watching sports but was pretty awful at participating in them. I was awkward and uncoordinated, generally lazy, and with that I never had the determination to get much better at any athletic activity. After all, to this day I struggle with keeping my heels on the ground during a squat because I've lived my life walking around on my toes. I even have students who recognize me across campus because of the way that I walk. Needless to say, I was never an athlete.

Recently, I've joined a CrossFit gym. It's the first gym I've ever joined and I decided to pay the outrageously high monthly fee just so that I'd force myself to go. Now, I live on a college campus with a more than adequate gym--that I technically pay for--and I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually gone to it to workout. I pay for CrossFit. Today it was snowing and it was a 10 minute drive to CrossFit. I went to CrossFit.

Gyms scare the hell out of me. There, I said it. When one goes to a gym, they encounter a different kind of person. They encounter a person who is big, strong, and intense. They encounter a place of judgment. (If you can't dead lift 300 lbs, you obviously don't belong here.) Or, maybe we should say that that's the place that one encounters in one's mind. For me, at least, that intimidation factor and my own self consciousness of my awkwardness is what created a 6'2" 230 lb individual. It created a person with a resting heart rate way higher than it should be. It created a person who is generally depressed and ashamed of their body. It created a person who stopped taking care of themselves. I gave up. The intimidation of the world of fitness was far too overwhelming for a weak soul like me living inside a weak body. In my mind, it was just too much to take.

I even bought P90X online because I figured I could work out in private where the intimidation simply wasn't there. I never made it through even half of the P90X program.

Last month, I joined CrossFit. CrossFit is one of the hardest workout programs out there; it doesn't matter how strong you are, it will kick your butt. You know what I discovered? That gym that intimidated me for so long? It's not reality. This morning I worked out with women that must have been well over 60 years old. They couldn't lift much and they sure couldn't do lateral jumps over a bar, but they were there and they worked hard. And yeah, the guy in front of me looked like he could bench press an elephant, but who cares? The intimidation factor went right out the door when I first went to CrossFit because I realized that there are people of all shapes and sizes there, all on different levels of fitness, all working toward the same goal: to do better than they did last time.

Yeah, awkward me can barely bench press the bar. And yeah, I get some weird looks when I get to the bottom of the back squat and literally can't stand up. Yeah, my push presses barely get my elbows straight. But the only time the coach has yelled at me? When I apologized for not being able to do something. I met a group of people who want me to succeed no matter how bad I am at it. I met a group of people who are so diverse, not only in their age and background, but in their fitness level. Once I realized this, the intimidation factor of working out began to fade.

I can't help but think that that's how the church is to outsiders. In their minds, it's got to be as intimidating as a gym is to me. People, so far along in their progress (toward holiness), speaking a language that only they think, who are intense about everything they do in that realm. I can only hope that there are some new Christians who walked into the Body of Christ because their friends said they should and hoped for the best. And, when they came, they met a group of real people, all at different points on their journey, all working together in their path toward Christian perfection and hoping to do better than they did last time.

In the midst of a time when the church seems to be dying, gym membership isn't. People are learning the gym language. Less people are learning the Christian language.

As Christians, we have to opportunity to learn from such a trend. Gyms work to make themselves less intimidating so that more people will get excited about taking care of their physical bodies. Churches might do well to ponder this model.

How can we, the Church, work at conveying who we are (a disciplined set of believers who, while admittedly speaking a different language, are wholly excited to welcome others in so that they too might get started on their path) in a positive light? How might the world see our community? How might the world see our accountability? How might the world see Christ's love through us?

CrossFit doesn't apologize for who it is. It's hard. It's a lot of work. It takes discipline and practice. And yes, there is a new language to learn.

If the Church is going to get serious about evangelism, I think it is time we work toward that end by beginning to understand how the world sees us and figure out a way that the world might understand the gospel message through our presence rather than being completely overwhelmed by the intimidation of such a presence. That, to me, is how the Church's evangelistic mission might better be lived out in the world.

The Church can welcome others in without apologizing for who it is. But, in today's society, it's going to take a bit more work. Don't worry though, my guess is that it will be worth the investment.

-B

True Freedom and Its Costs

Early yesterday morning, shortly after midnight, the freedom that a young man (younger than I am) named James Holmes had to own an assault rifle, legally, cost 12 people (maybe more) their lives. It cost 12 families their loved ones and it cost the world 12 individuals who could have made it a better place.

James Holmes was free to own the weapons that he used to shoot those 71 people yesterday. He legally purchased those guns, all that ammunition, and likely anything that he used to booby trap his apartment which he knew he would never return to.

James was free, like you and I. He had a right, a freedom, to own those guns.

Interestingly enough, that freedom that James enjoyed was paid for by the lives of soldiers who fought courageously both here in the States and abroad so that no one would take away that freedom. People lost loved ones in war, terrorist attacks, and random acts of violence, all because we were fighting to maintain our freedom. Simply put: we must defend ourselves in order to keep our freedom.

This concept isn't new. We know this. In order for us to have freedom, we must defend our freedom. But it does get more complicated.

Last night I asked a still-unanswered question via the wonderful world of social media and it went something like this: Is there any reason that non-military or non-police citizens should be allowed to own a semi-automatic rifle? I didn't phrase the question well, and I was unsure of what verbs to use, but I think the message was semi-clear: what good, honorable reason would there be for someone to own a weapon like James used in Aurora? Should it be legal to own a weapon that can do that much damage?

Of course, as many of my posts do, it sparked controversy. Americans are only as free as they can defend themselves to be! People attack us? We must fight back! We are only as free as we can assure ourselves that we are. Otherwise, those attacking us impending on our freedom have every opportunity to take away our freedom, which makes it so that we aren't truly free.

I should be clear: I think this is a giant load of crap.

If we define freedom in this way then we are saying that freedom only comes from the way in which we defend ourselves.

Friends, this isn't freedom. This is fear.

I'd invite you to take a step back and look at what this freedom has brought us: countless wars ending with much of the world hating our arrogance, machines in airports that send radiation into our bodies, racism, patent wars, and undying greed.

I have family members that carry a pistol wherever they go. The idea is that if anyone were to attack our family, they'd have a way to defend themselves. Again, I ask, is this freedom? Can we truly enjoy such a "freedom" if we are always concerned with who might be following us, ready to attack us? What is it that this freedom truly gives us?

Perhaps the question really is: what is the point of such a freedom? What is this freedom all about anyway? Is freedom the right to bear arms? Is freedom the right to say whatever we want, even if it is harmful? Is freedom the right to put up a fence so that the neighbor can't see me mowing the lawn? Is freedom the chance to eat BBQ, drink beer, and party with fireworks?

This, to me, doesn't sound like real freedom. It doesnt sound like a culture ready and willing to make this world a better place. It doesn't sound like a culture who cares about one another. No, this freedom sounds like a culture in which online bullying meets crazy heights and encourages suicide. This freedom sounds like a culture that encourages the defense of religion rather than the religion itself. This freedom sounds like a culture that has at least one mass shooting a year. This freedom sounds like a culture that is so obsessed with the work of the individual that it encourages such an individual to refuse to recognize the assistance they've received that led to their success.

In short: this freedom sounds like it delivers a worse product and costs more. It costs us the lives of soldiers overseas. It costs us the lives of moviegoers in a theater. It costs us a dying reputation. And what do we get? A degraded culture who cares nothing about what we should care about.

I sense a very different freedom in Christ. Christ assures us, because of his death and resurrection that the chains that once bound us through sin are broken forever. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to live into the people we have been made to be. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to recognize the gifts and graces of one another. This freedom, true freedom, inspires us to live as one with the peace that only Christ can give us. This freedom, true freedom, gives us life and life abundantly. The other freedom results in death; this freedom, true freedom, results in resurrection.

And the best part: the price for this freedom has been paid. The sacrifice has been given, by the very one who gives us life! It costs us nothing but the willingness to follow in the steps of the one who said "Come, follow me."

Many may say, "Wrong! This freedom costs us everyday. It costs us because the life of discipleship is one of martyrdom. It costs us because of the persecution of the world." AHA! The world wants us to buy into its version of freedom. But we must not. It wants us to pay the cost (and many many before us have). But we must not. Even if we are persecuted on this earth, we know that true freedom of being forgiven for our brokenness is still had. That price has been paid.

This freedom is not concerned with our rights as individuals, it is concerned with our holiness. It is concerned with who God wants us to be. It has nothing to do with our individualistic rights, it has to do with our calling.

In America, for some silly reason, we have been defining freedom in terms of the right to defend ourselves and right to do what we want. That freedom has a poor outcome and costs a lot. And that doesn't end well. It ends with dead bodies on the floor. It ends up with bloodied theater seats.

If only we would desire true freedom.

-B

 

We remember the lives of those who were shot in Aurora yesterday morning. May God's hand of comfort be on their souls and their family members. May God's comforting and guiding hand help this nation to recover from such a tragedy, and guide the world toward true freedom, for which the price has already been paid. We are a broken people. Let us remember that we are also a forgiven people.

 

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

We Ought To Have Compassion For Jerry Sandusky

I watched the news yesterday, like most of America: 45 out of 48 counts...guilty.

He was held for sexual misconduct with minors, child rape, and several other counts that make us turn our heads and cry. As the trial began, I wanted to give him the most hope I could, but after some time it became more and more evident: Jerry was guilty. The defense attorney said it was an 'uphill battle.' I've never heard such an understatement.

I wrote on twitter (and therefore Facebook) yesterday that I have a problem when I hear people say "he got what he deserved." I excepted, though, child molestation. Something seems so graphic, perverse, and utterly wrong about it. When it comes to child molestation, I tend to think that those criminals should get all that they deserve.

What does Jerry deserve? As at 68 year old man, he's going to get the rest of his life in prison. He was taken into custody following yesterday's proceedings. He will never spend another night in bed with his wife. He will never see the life of a free man again. The world is over for Jerry Sandusky. He won't even have much of an opportunity to right his wrongs.

I could tell that this news was well received because as the final decision by the jury became public, the crowd outside the courthouse steps screamed and cheered. They were ecstatic that this serial molester/rapist was finally going to 'get what he deserved.' They cheered the prosecuting attorney as she spoke to the crowd and booed the defense attorney when he even hinted at the idea of an appeal.

Jerry is going to, according to the world, 'get what he deserves.'

Unfortunately today I spent the greater part of the afternoon watching YouTube clips of Westboro Baptist Church. As many of you know, WBC uses their voice to scream fire and damnation to all 'fags' and 'fag-enablers.' Mostly, if you don't go to their church, you fall into one of those two camps for them. Within every clip they said, 'fags are gonna get what they deserve...because they don't listen to the Lord their God.' For WBC, being gay deserves damnation in hell forever. If you are gay, you will get what you deserve when you spend eternity in hell, according to Westboro Baptist Church.

Of course, the thing Westboro Baptist is missing is compassion. They have none. They will explain to you (I've asked them) that what they're doing is 'love.' They love gay people more than anyone else, according to them, because they want gays to turn from their 'evil' ways. Their love, though, is for some sort of works-righteousness where one could earn eternity in heaven simply by not being gay. That's how they define 'love'...like, hey, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't tell you about how bad it is to be gay. Therefore, I love you. That's not really love.

This seems a worldly, and not Christlike, response. You do something that is 'despicable' (in the case of homosexuality, we are remarkably disagreed...with child rape, we are not) in our eyes. Therefore, you shall be punished. According to WBC, for the gay it is hell. According the world, for Jerry it's prison for life...and a shamed life.

How shall the Church separate itself from the world?

The world says to Jerry, a sick sick man, "You are going to get what you deserve." The Church, though, needs to say to him, "What you did is wrong, but we love you. And yes, that means more than telling you that you get what you deserve...it means seeing the part of you that God is within. it means having compassion for the part of you that is broken, like we all are."

Jerry will spend the rest of his life in prison. And, according to this world, he should.

But the Church will have to take the step beyond that. A step to see Jerry as a person, a human. Perhaps a very sick man, but a man just the same. That compassion for those who have wronged us, those who do despicable things, those that are misfits in society is the type of compassion I see Jesus preaching and practicing within the Scriptures. We are to follow what Jesus did. That's who we are. That's our calling.

We ought to have compassion for Jerry Sandusky. That's how we, the Church, stand apart from the world.

-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