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.


Sandra Ostapowich said...

Great insights! I'm not sure that I'd just stick with fear though. There are a lot of hymns that have a certain gravitas that is not founded in fear but in confidence. Our God's promises are so certain and sure in Christ that we can be so bold as to tell the devil where to stick his lies. There's also the joy, not just happy thoughts and niceness, of proclaiming the wonders of our risen and glorified Redeemer, not crooning about how sweet our Boyfriend is.

Pastor Fiene said...

I don't know if you're pitting fear and confidence against each other. But if you are, I wouldn't. I think a consistent theme that we see throughout Scripture is that, whenever someone comes into the presence of God, he's terrified. But in response, God never tells him he's wrong to be afraid. By all accounts, he should be. Rather, God just tells him not to be. Confidence is the answer to fear, not so much the opposite.

On account of that, I'd argue that any hymn founded in Christian confidence is, de facto, also founded in Christian fear, in the same way that the psalms focusing more on praise and adoration are able to do so because they're always rooted in the same fear that you find spoken of more specifically in Psalm 130, for example.

Pastor Sørensen said...

Sentimentality is really "gospel" without law, that is a false gospel.