Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sentimentality vs. Reverence

Oh, so the other day, I solved the worship wars.  Well, I may not have solved everything, like all the tactical, practical stuff.  But I have identified the key problem.  This happened while I was watching, via the webbernet, stuff going on at the 2010 convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Or, to state it more precisely, this happened while I was watching the stuff in between the things going on at the convention, when the conventioneers would piously fill the time in betwixt items of business by singing a hymn.

So sings hymns they did.  But whenever a hymn was sung, something strange happened.  Instead of being arranged in a way that you might expect a hymn to be arranged, the hymns were arranged in ways that made them sound like Disney ballads.  So instead of sounding like this, the first hymn sounded like this.  Instead of sounding like this, the second hymn sounded like this.  And instead of sounding like this, the third hymn sounded like this.  It's as though the worship committee, seeking to placate both sides, said, "Alright, to make you traditionalists happy, we'll only sing hymns.  But to make the contemporary guys happy, we're going to ruin them all first."

Now I suppose there are a number of folks who would argue that I shouldn't have had a problem with this.  After all, these were the same good, solid, doctrinally pure words that I'd sung a million times before, words that teach who Christ is and what He's done for us and thus are beneficial to be sung by His Church.  So the problem must not be doctrinal, right?

But despite the lyrical content, I still think that doctrine really is the key issue here.  You see, as I listened to these arrangements, I realized something about them.  They were sentimental.  But they were not reverent.

Sentiment: refined or tender emotion; manifestation of the higher or more refined feeling.

Reverence: a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.  

These are the dictionary.com definitions of these words.  And so, on the surface, it's understandable how one might confuse sentimental music for the reverent kind.  After all, both deal with strong emotions.  Both can bring you to your knees, bring you to tears.  Sentiment and reverence both talk fluently about pain and love and joy and comfort.  But there is one thing, one really, really big thing, that separates these two concepts from each other.  Reverence has a component of fear.  And sentiment does not.

Fear is a big deal in the Bible.  The Psalmists talk about it.  "If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared," (Psalm 130:3-4).  The Lord's mother talks about it.  "For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.  And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation," (Luke 1:49-50).  And, of course, Jesus Himself addresses the issue as well.  "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell," (Matthew 10:28).

When it comes to sentimentality, this godly fear of which the Scriptures speak is sorely lacking.  Of course, that's actually a really good thing if you're not singing about God.  So, if you're singing about your boyfriend, your hometown, your mom or your dad, or anyone or anything else that doesn't have the ability to destroy both body and soul in hell, then go on with your bad self.  Get as sentimental, whether in raw or cheesy forms, as you want.

But when it comes to reverence, fear must be there in order for reverence to be real.  This is why Jesus condemned the prayer of the Pharisee but praised the prayer of the Publican.  The prayer of the former was sentimental through his self righteousness.  The prayer of the latter was reverent through his fear.  Likewise for us, recognizing that we are sinners in need of God's eternal mercies through Jesus Christ, we come before God in fear.  We enter His presence through Word and Sacrament in fear, knowing that He has the power and the right and the authority to condemn us forever while also coming into His presence with comfort and joy, knowing that He has promised not to do this for the sake of Jesus  We kneel before Him in fear, knowing that our sins have given us no right to stand before Him while also believing with all confidence that He will tell us to stand in glory on account His love through Christ.  And when we sing to God, we sing to Him in fear, knowing that there is no other name by which we can be saved while also rejoicing that our salvation is now complete in the blood of God's own son.  Or, to put it in the words of the author of Hebrews, "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship by which we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear.  For our God is a consuming fire," (Hebrews 12:28-29).

This is why our hymns have historically been written and arranged in the way that I expected to hear at the LCMS convention.  We sing words set to strong, sturdy, bold music that sounds like it could tear down the enemy's walls not because the Church was once embedded in a militaristic culture, but because tearing down the enemy's walls is precisely what God did through Christ when we were prisoners behind those walls in our sin.  We sing songs in minor keys not because we're morose, depressed people but because we recognize that God has actually lifted us up out of real condemnation, that He has taken us to His side, away from a real devil and a real hell.  (If you're comfortable singing songs like this in front of your God, you simply don't believe you've actually been saved from anything.)  We sing songs that sound different from the pop world's because our songs are about God and their songs aren't.

And so, when it comes to the Church, regardless of how orthodox the words may be, the music itself must always be reverent and never sentimental.  If fear is and always must be a component in our posture and praise before God, then it is theologically problematic when we reject forms of music that were created and guided by a doctrine of godly fear in favor of forms that weren't.  If we are, in fact, to fear God and not men, then our songs to God shouldn't sound like songs to men.  If only God has the ability to condemn, then we shouldn't sing about Him in the same way that illegal immigrant mice sing about their family members.  If only the Triune Name has the power to save, then we shouldn't expect music ignorant of that name, even the music found in really good Elton John ballads, to serve us better in the proclamation of that Name than the music of Bach or Luther or anyone living today who writes genuinely reverent stuff.  If only the True God can deliver us from this body of death, we shouldn't think that our song of praise will somehow engage people more in His truth if we emulate songs where fuzzy little woodland creatures don't seem out of place in the music videos.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why I'd Rather Listen to Secular Music

I don't listen to much Contemporary Christian Music.  Granted, I haven't listened to much of anything beyond highlighted selections of the Wiggles and the theme songs of various Thomas the Tank Engine characters during the last few years.  But even back when I did listen to music, I didn't listen to much CCM.

There are, I suppose, a few reasons for this.  I will now list them with numbers because it makes them look more authentic.  So here we go...

P10208361. I am a dude.  And CCM music is very girly.  Even when a CCM song is sung by a guy, generally speaking, it is still oozing in estrogen because it sounds like the super-emotive ballads that fledgling male songwriters write about exgirlfriends in an effort to get new girlfriends.  (Trust me, I know something about this.)  And it doesn't matter how manly the manly singer is because even the rawest machismo in the world is trumped by lady pandering every time.  Like how Clint Eastwood both directed and starred in The Bridges of Madison County and yet no man in the entire world has ever watched that movie.  Including Clint Eastwood.  So, in summary, I don't listen to much CCM for the same reason that I don't watch Lifetime.

2. Amy Grant.  No offense to Ms. Grant, but if she was the best talent that the early 90's CCM industry had to lease to the pop charts, well, that's not a very compelling case for me to twist the radio dial to one of the holier stations. 

3. Musically speaking, CCM generally gets it wrong on both sides, both in its spiritual aspects as well as in its secular ones.

For those who are fans of CCM, that may sound like somewhat of an unfair claim.  But since I strongly agree with myself, I would argue that it's true.  And I would also argue that it's actually quite simple to see how it's true.  And I'm going to argue that right now, once again using numbers to give greater weight to my claims.

1. Church music is, in essence, didactic.  Its job is to heal broken hearts by teaching.  St. Paul says precisely this in Galatians 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord," (NKJV).  So,when Church music teaches us who God is, when it teaches us what Jesus Christ has done for us and what we've conquered through His blood, our broken hearts are healed, our loads are lightened and are faith is strengthened.  And Church music has done its job.

2. Secular music is, in essence, cathartic.  Its job is to heal broken hearts by purify the emotions.  So, when secular music sings of a pain that you thought only you had ever felt, when it wails of a common heartbreak and pulls the tears out of your eyes, when it bubbles up joy inside your blood by making you dance, then secular music has done its job.

So, with regard to point 1, if CCM wants to be legitimate, worthwhile Church music, then it must be didactic.  It must teach.  But, by and large, it doesn't.  Instead, it often seeks to emulate the emotional soarings of secular/pop music which are achieved by focusing on the songwriter's love of the object and not so much on the object itself/himself/herself, a la this ridiculously awesome secular song.  (It's a long point, but I'd also argue that the non-sacramental theology behind most CCM is even more to blame for this than mimicry of secular music.)  So, instead of focusing on the objective work of Christ, instead of proclaiming who God is and what He has done for us, it focuses instead on our love for God and how we feel about him.  Granted, these aren't bad things to talk about.  But telling me how crazy you are about Jesus won't teach me who Jesus is.  And if your music doesn't teach me about Him, it really doesn't have much place in His Church.

So if CCM doesn't prove to be of great value when it comes to Sunday morning, one could at least hope that it could feature some of the value found in point 2.  And yet, I think it's here that CCMS also falls a bit flat.  You see, while secular music can't give us the Triune God, it can give us raw, beautifully raw humanity, a la the wild, manic emotion found in the latter half of this piece.  And when it does that well, it's a great and wonderful thing.

But in order for that to happen, you need the songwriter, the singer, the guitar solist, the whomever, to pour out his or her soul without reservation.  If you've ever found yourself, surrounded by the fragments of a shattered heart, listening to the same song over and over and over again until three o'clock in the morning, you've discovered a song that does this.  You've discovered a song that achieves true catharsis because of its honesty.

And, in my experience with CCM, this honesty is deeply and profoundly lacking.  Again, it's too long a point to argue in much detail now, but non-sacramental theology, by and large, does not permit Christians to be honest with themselves and with each other.  So, if your theology won't let you find God's love in Baptism, or the Lord's Supper, or in the Word, then the only place left to find God is inside your own heart where your faith resides.  And when the quality and quantity of your faith determines the amount of God's love that you get, that's not an environment that's conducive to being an honest Christian.  If acknowledging your doubt , your weakness, your shriveled, pathetic little faith means acknowledging that God must therefore be very, very far away from you, then you're simply going to act like there's no doubt to see here at all.  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  This is why your average CCM song has a hard time truly connecting on a gut level-because no one else in the world has experienced what it's like to always feel super about everything, to never doubt God's mercies and to have so magnificently triumphed over every one of life's temptations through your perfect adoration of God's awesomeness.  Show me a guy who feels like he could have written the latest CCM hit and I'll show you a guy whose closet is jammed full of sins and doubts because he's far too terrified to actually look at them.

And so, in the end, I find more value in a song that talks honestly about sin even if it doesn't talk about salvation than I do in the song that talks insincerely about both.  In the end, I'd rather listen to a heavy piece of humanity than an empty puff of theology.

P.S. If any CCM apologists would like to challenge my rather broad genre assertions, I'm up for discussion.  But, first, I challenge you to find me one CCM song that speaks more honestly about sin, guilt and our fallen world than this secular piece.  Or this one.  Or this one.  And, sorry, but you will not top this one.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.

Face Punch Word of the Week #1

In an effort to keep myself blogging consistently, here is a new feature:

Each week, I will post a somewhat popular word in modern/pop theology that annoys me, a word that, if used by you around me, might get you punched in the face.  So here we go...

Face Punch Word of the Week #1:

GIFTED (verb)

As in: "The Lord has gifted Bill with a talent for evangelism."

I am opposed to the use of this word for two reasons:

1. Grammatically.  'Gifted' is not a real word.  It has been invented by pietists who want to sound like they have a deeper understanding of and appreciate for God's work than the rest of us. Turning nouns (a la gift) into verbs (a la to gift) for this purpose is number two on the pietist's list of favorite things to do, right after being better than you and right before publicly repenting of your sins.

2. Theologically.  God is a God of order.  And just as this applies to divine worship, it also applies to grammar.  See point 1.

So, don't use this word and I will not punch you.  Probably.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Oh, that's right! I have a blog...

I have been meaning to post for awhile, but keep forgetting.

A short list of other things I've been meaning to do for a while but keep forgetting to do:

1. Familiarize myself to a greater degree with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

2. Rent this movie.

3. Not be terrible at all forms of athletic competition.

4. Take my beautiful wife out dancing.  However,  the large baby in her belly has, regardless of a good or poor memory on my part, put that item on the PUP list.

So, I'm on it.  Hopefully.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.