Monday, December 31, 2007

Broken Social Scene: The Half Gospel Groan

This is a post I started writing back in early November but never finished because it got me thinking so much. I've finished it up as a result of my kind friend Tyler's urging.

I just bought Kevin Drew’s first solo release Spirit If….. When I’m downtown Holland and have time, I sometimes stop by Full Circle record store and get myself into trouble. Steve, the owner/manager, sells used CDs too, an unbelievable temptation for me. So despite what I said about him a few posts ago, I bought Elliot Smith’s Either/Or for seven bucks and then couldn’t resist Kevin Drew’s first solo disc either. Kevin is the main creative force behind the Toronto based band/musical collective known as Broken Social Scene. This music is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure if Kevin suffers from depression or if he is a drug addict (perhaps both), but this record is swirling in the bizarre and beautiful of what sounds to me like drug induced phantasms. I’ve now bought all of Broken Social’s CDs and sometimes wonder how I can reconcile my fascination with this music with my faith.

It is interesting that I now live in Western Michigan, an area predominantly populated by Dutch Reformed Calvinists. For all that could be said in critique of Calvinism as a whole, there is a theological openness to an engagement with culture that is liberating. In 1999 I attended my first Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College that hosted authors like Chaim Potok, Anne Lamot, Rabbi Kushner, and Maya Angelou. At that time the festival also included music (the music has since been separated into a separate festival that run every other year alternating with the Festival of Writing), and it was there that I first heard Pedro the Lion. In the Spring of 2006 I interviewed for my position at Hope College, a sister school to Calvin, while Susanna was presenting her poetry at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. Six years later the festivals keynote authors were Alice McDermott, Marilyn Robinson, and Salman Rushdie! This is all to say that there resides within the Dutch Reformed tradition some seminal ideology that must not only allow for but also motivate this kind of liberal dialogue with contemporary culture. I confess that despite my own reformed leanings, I am not as well read in these areas as I would like. From what I understand much of the Dutch Reformed tradition owes its substance as much to Abraham Kuyper, yet I did take in a very helpful quote from John Calvin when I was a freshmen beginning Wheaton College. It was in a pamphlet every student read called “The Student’s Calling.”

“All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”

I want to be very careful with the notion of a “wicked man.” Applying this kind of language to a person is not first and foremost the responsibility of the Church in any final and ultimate sense. None of us is equipped to judge another human being in a final way. Righteousness and damnation is ultimately between God and that person. However, for the sake of minding our own hearts and minds, it is important that we learn to discern our culture carefully. Such discernment is not a matter of condemning another person but rather protecting our own selves—in this case protecting our imaginations, the parts of our being that receive and react to culture. I read John Calvin’s statement in a pamphlet called “The Student’s Calling” when I was a entering Wheaton college.

Nevertheless, this quote has been seminal for me in terms of my engagement with culture. Hyperbole is generally not trust worthy, but this statement is true and no exaggeration: I am sure these words of Calvin were worth the sum total of my undergraduate education. Underneath this statement is a hungry desire to learn and explore all that God has created and to daringly move into a world that is ruled by a dark prince of confusion and enmity in order to find this truth. We could couple Calvin’s words with St. Francis’ teaching that there is not one bit of the created world that does not testify to God’s glory. Our purpose as members of a royal priest hood and holy nation is to go out into the darkness and redeem every inch of creation by drawing out the good within it. We reveal this goodness in just the same way a priest gathers up the bread and the cup and lifts them above his head for the congregation to see and hope in.

The question for each servant of Christ then is, which areas of creation he or she should explore, dig into, sift through and redeem. We are sent out from our prayer closets, out from our homes and from our communities to search out each nook and cranny of the created world with the wonder of a child and the craftiness of a serpent to be salt and light, to leaven and purify. Yet here is the tricky question: how far can each of us move into the darkness and still generate the light of Christ? As I referenced earlier in a previous post, some of us might lean over to reach out to the world and fall in. Perhaps there are some parts of the world that are best left alone, parts that might have goodness, but its goodness is so deeply hidden beneath layers of confusion that it is ultimately too much for any one person to engage alone without getting into trouble.

Broken Social Scene is a formidable excursion into the messy, grisly beauty that is their sound. Kevin’s newest record has few songs that rarely miss the opportunity to use the “F” word, such an ugly word. It is fair to say that much of his whole aesthetic is beautifully “F-ed up.” So why would a worship pastor like myself even bother with this? No doubt there are many who might not find it worth their time and energy, and I’d honestly be hesitant to recommend this music to just anybody without a good chat. I’m a lover of music and art in general. Unique music like Kevin Drew’s is very hard for me personally to ignore, and if I am going to listen to it, I need to discuss it in just this kind of manner to find the goodness within it. As people of faith, we cannot participate in society at large and leave it un-examined. I fear that many Christians blindly consume culture like sheep going to slaughter. This apathy will eventually lead us to a neutered Gospel and milk toast discipleship.

The word “broken” as it exists in the band’s moniker is essential to appreciating this music. Most of Kevin’s lyrics are obtuse to say the least, and I’m not sure if it is fair to say there is any traditional way of reading them. He is bound and determined to elude any conclusive interpretation of what his music means. Nevertheless, whether the band literally owns up to the brokenness of the word “broken” in their name, that word describes the functional purposes, the modus apperendi, of the band. In Wilco’s documentary, I am Trying to Break Your Heart, former guitar player, Jay Bennet, explains that their method was to take the conventional structure of the song and “f---k” it up. Well, if that is what Wilco did on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Broken Social Scene bashes each of their songs to pieces.

Here is exactly where the redemption comes in though. In the midst of what sounds like extreme efforts to destroy their music, there is still a brilliance of coherent, melodic beauty akin to the likes of my beloved Elliot Smith on one hand and Radiohead on the other. Broken Social just manages to do this in an especially broken and horrifying way.

For a Christian who is tired of sentimentalism, the excessive addiction within the church to masking the pain of the world with forced happiness, the wonderful chaos of Broken Social Scene is a relief. What I appreciate from this kind of art is its spot on ability to articulate what I call generally the “spirit of the age.” This music is able to hold a mirror up to our post industrial society, to examine and confess its agony and at the same time provide a melodic structure that points to something meaningful. What that meaningful something is, is beside the point. What I share with a Kevin Drew or a Thom Yorke is the belief that in the midst of a broken and messy world there is still something worth singing about. In many ways they are much closer to a biblical profession of faith than our so-called Christian artists that are marketed to the church. Let me explain.

In his book Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairytale, Fredrick Beuchner teaches us that the good news of God is always bad news before it is good news. This allows us to see the value of the tradition of tragic literature. Beuchner’s point is that we cannot fully understand salvation until we understand what we are being saved from.

The Greeks originally believed that their tragic dramas should be woven into popular civic life in order to train the moral compass of each citizen. In their Golden Age they had seasonal drama festivals, tragedies in one season and comedies in another. They believed that the tragedies, above all, revealed the quality of a person’s virtue. When un-just violence is inflicted upon a character, a citizen should feel deep pangs of fright and even anger. If a citizen does not experience this, it is probable that he or she is in fact amoral and even corrupt.

For the Greeks the emphasis was upon each individual’s journey toward the virtuous life. For a Christian a tragedy is instead an admission of our need for salvation. Not only should a believer have an ache for justice in the face of tragedy, she should fall upon her face in repentance to recognize her own capacity to contribute chaos to a tragic plot. “Oh, but for the grace of God go I!”

Broken Social Scene, with it’s broken aesthetic, is a tragicomic musical expression. The fundamental idea of the comic is not just that it is funny but that the outcome of the story is good. Often the comedies portray shocking brutality yet they posses a coherent, positive ending where the troubles are put aside and the main characters enter into joy. This can be understood in the composition of the music. The rhythmic foundation of Broken Social is essentially comic in the regularity of the snare and kick drums on both the quarter and half notes. The steadiness of the beats and the overall expression of the drums are not half-hearted. The drums scoot you right along underneath the maniacal swirls of sounds, the distorted voices and the many layers of ambient noises, trumpets and electric guitars. Pare back all the instrumentation, leave the drums and you might sense a stronger sense of hopefulness. For me, drums are everything and Broken Social never disappoints.

However, the overall sentiment of the music, while containing a strain of beauty pulsing through it, is an emotion of confusion, frustration and lonely despair. This is a condition I am no stranger to, and it is how I assume that most of us feel—especially those of us in the West who are so busy. As one writer said it, “Americans don’t have lives; they have careers.” Some scientists believe that as much as 30% of our population suffers from some degree of depression. In this context I hear Broken Social Scene as a protest against the darkness of what we have made of ourselves here in all our affluence and convenience. Here is how I see this music as in one way more authentic to the Gospel than what is marketed as “Christian” music. After all, a third of the Psalter itself is made up of laments and groans of suffering. It is only our sentimentalized American faith that is in the habit of drawing attention in song only to the more pietistic and jovial of the Psalms. I would never ever want to hinder a brother or sister from engaging the person of God intimately and passionately, however, the breadth of the Psalms do not support this as the main focus of prayer life. The overall gist of the Psalms is: the world is full of wickedness; I and we are complicit in this wickedness; even in the midst of the testimony of creation and God’s historic faithfulness we continue to rebel against him; we don’t know what else there is to do or how to stop our rebellion; finally, we cry out “please help us Oh, God.”

Broken Social Scene’s music is essentially a groaning. It is a “half-Gospel” in its ability to help us confess the wrong that is in the world. I am not suggesting that all of us need to listen to this CD or even make it something we can each appreciate. I’d much rather have a good hymn like “Be Thou My Vision” or “Be Still My Soul” as a theme song of my waking life. I just offer this band as an example of how I go about engaging our popular culture.

One final note about Kevin Drew and Broken Social Scene: we as Christian artists should be challenged by these kinds of musical collectives. When I saw Broken Social in concert a few years ago there were at times as many as eighteen people on stage when they had their full horn section adding to a song. Normally this many musicians on stage would suggest either a train wreck or something like jam rock (the later is something I am not particularly fond of). What does it take to get so many people to play and create together? And further, how is this creativity sustained over a period of years? This is my question as I continue to chip away at my own record. How can I incorporate more and more people into one whole piece of art? It has not been easy.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Being Relevant as Form of Cultural Insecurity: Further Thoughts on Corporate Worship and Indie Music

I'm very thankful for the feedback on these posts. Your comments keep opening up ideas for things that I'd like to write about. I'll pick up some more on this notion of a Pre-Modern consciousness in the future.

Returning to the discussion on artistry and corporate worship....

I had written before that the goal of the worship leader is to direct people to God first and artistry second and that the main purpose of a worship leader is not creativity but to lead people to God. I'm afraid that it might seem I am making a vast distinction between worship and creativity. If we do draw such distinctions we might seemingly gain all of heaven but lose track of the earth and be led down the road toward a classic heresy called gnosticism, what is sometimes referred to as dualism, an exaggerated separation between body and spirit.

There is much to unpack here, and we can't be lazy about this particular conversation. I believe that how we go about incorporating our cultural influences and interests into our faith is a vital question about the health of our worshiping communities. The specifics on how I go about bringing my musical influences into worship music can serve as a case study to consider how it is that we function as cultural beings in the context of American society, beings who are working out their faith in fear and trembling. The way we approach this specific issue can help us answer questions like, how do we live faithfully? Who is Jesus for today? How do we breathe the air of popular culture without choking? Unfortunately, in the contemporary conversations about the church, these kinds of questions have been narrowed down to a discussion on being "relevant." Relevant might be a good word to name what we are after, but unfortunately the whole direction of the conversation about being "relevant" has been muddled so much that the word has turned in on itself and become misleading.

Here we return to the foundational teachings that the church has upheld for centuries (ala the Nicene Creed). When confronting the heresy of gnosticism, the church has been able to re-assert the doctrine of the Incarnation, the concept that Jesus is both God and man. This serves to nourish a view of the universe where both spirit and body can exist in one whole reality. The Incarnation speaks to many other weak areas of church belief and practice that continue today. For now, it is important to observe that the truth that God became man has always affirmed the goodness of the physical, created world. In affirming this world view, it is important to strive against a distinction between the secular and the sacred.

So now you should better understand my hesitancy to communicate an exaggerated distinction between my artistry (heavily influenced by independent music) and my ministry of leading worship. My fear about the conversation on being relevant is precisely the temptation to make such a vast distinction between artistry and worship that artistry can become a trendy garb that is used to clothe worship with an intention of making it more interesting. The unfortunate practice would proceed like this: the worship leader takes the meaning of the song in the form of its lyrics as the spiritual content and core of the worship, then he or she tinkers around with the song until it attains the status of sounding "cool." The question of the worship leader then can become what is interesting to an audience instead of what is worshipful. Thus the worship leader's intent is entertainment rather than ministry.

I don't for a minute want to argue that any of us will purely leave behind the intention of ministry for the sake of entertainment. We are all working through a mixture of motives. However, it is very important for us to observe these temptations and work against them.

I want to try to move into the difficult language of my own motives to illustrate the dificulties here. Working on my own music and then shifting to contemporary worship music has been almost schizophrenic. I'm at a stage with Ordinary Neighbors that requires me to spend a lot of time in the basement listening back to tracks over and over while I try to come up with extra parts--either guitar, piano, vocals or just some kind of noise that adds to the overall texture. I'm not a versatile multi-instrumentalist, and this work is slow going for me. It'll take me hours before I stumble onto something interesting that feels like it is adding to the song rather than complicating it. When I have the patience, I can get lost in this creative process and find myself surprised by the nuances of how the music changes and grows.

There is a definite similarity here between the creative process and meditative prayer. Both require persistence and deliberate effort, and both leave me changed and stretched. Sometimes there is a delightful surge of joy that overtakes me and some times I am gratified to find that after so much tinkering I haven't yet ruined the song. It is easy to over work a song and to become bored by it after listening to it over and over. In a definite way, making this music helps me move toward God, but it is an indirect movement.

Playing worship music involves a different part of my creativity. In contrast, it is a much more direct movement toward God. I am not spreading myself out, reaching so much for something new and different, creatively speaking, as I am reaching out toward something that is familiar. In working on my own music I am pushing myself as a pioneer or pilgrim. Even if what I make is not groundbreaking, it is still new for me and exciting. When I lead worship, I am returning home. They are such different experiences!

I'm not saying that worship is necessarily neat in terms of being safe and predictable. In a worship experience we can open ourselves to surprises. Even in the highest church liturgies, it is likely that the Holy Spirit might knock one of us up side the head with a sudden glimpse of our own sin or of his bright beauty. I am reminded of Annie Dillard's words in Teaching A Stone to Talk:

“It is madness to wear ladies and velvet hats to church, we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preserves and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

In such a moment it might be fair to say it is God's creativity that has reached out toward us by surprise. The mystics describe our pious activities of prayer and worship as both a kind of homecoming and a pilgrimage as well. The main difference however is that in prayer I start at home and am led out by the Spirit. In making my own music, I guess I always feel lost, always confused, and it is the discovery of something at the end of the process that is always such a surprise. It is a wonder that anything tangible can come out of such wanderings.

The problem with current attempts at being relevant is that in an effort to be effective in speaking the language of our culture, we begin with the artistry stretching ourselves out to find new and more clever ways to package the Gospel and this ends up seeming frighteningly insincere. A much more authentic and believable voice could be heard if we began instead at home and were then led out by the Spirit. We allow ourselves to be shaped more by the means rather than the end itself. As the old adage goes,

"Alas, I leaned over to speak to the world and fell in."

Its like we have become that insecure kid you knew in Junior High and High School who worked too hard at being cool. He kept trying to wear his hair differently. He tried different clothes, different ways of swearing, different kinds of music, and different after school clubs, all in an attempt to become accepted. When Christians work so hard and obsess about being relevant they seem like that kid who you never had a chance to get to know because there were so many layers of insecurity covering up his real self.

So let's get this straight. Where does authenticity come from? That is the same question as how do we live faithfully today. Authenticity comes by knowing and revealing our true identity. This is the ultimate antidote to gnosticism, the separation of the physical from the spiritual. Our fundamental identity is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation: as human beings who are being renewed and transformed into the person of Christ, the most true human being, the second, sinless Adam. In Christ we have the ultimate joining of otherworldliness and worldliness, both God and man. The essence that abides in Jesus is the prototype for the rest of humanity. The incarnation makes insincerity in Christ impossible because his being is completely whole. There is nothing superficial about him.

In a future post I would like to project some ideas about how to approach both artistry and worship in a way that possesses a kind of holistic authenticity. In the mean time, I'd love to hear any ideas you might have about how this can be done.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Limitations of Scientific Reasoning: An Attempt at a Pre-Modern Discipleship

I want to return to the idea that the goal of the worship leader is to direct people to God first and artistry second. I don’t want to overstate this because it is really not that simple or straightforward. But first I need to explain a little bit about the way that I will be approaching topics in this blog. In my previous entry I started to explain my attempt at a pre-modern way of thinking. When I speak about “modernity,” I am primarily referring to the scientific revolution and its influence on the way those of us in developing countries think. While science has brought us amazing developments for our civilization, it is healthy to have a basic suspicion of these advantages.

Science entails a way of thinking that is very new to the human race. While scientific reasoning may have been around for roughly 500 years, its affect on the consciousness of mass society is comparatively in its adolescence. Scientific reasoning provides us a false sense of sophistication that is capable of blinding us to the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Ours is a naïve worship of the newer, the bigger and better and an impatience for anything antiquated. In contrast, a pre-modern consciousness, especially in terms of doing philosophy and theology, is a very different way of thinking from scientific reasoning.

To rediscover a pre-modern discipleship we will need to release our white-knuckled grip on our questions and ideas, relinquish the illusion of control, and accept that we can only talk about the shades of truths especially when trying to tackle such huge ideas as worship and art. How can anyone possibly exhaust either of these ideas?

One way of explaining this is by considering a group of blind men who were examining an elephant. One of them might grab the trunk and think he has discovered a hose. Another might grab a leg and conceive a tree trunk. Neither man is completely wrong and neither is completely right. It is only those of us in the West, those of us modernists, who are more prone to arrogantly presume that we could ever completely see and know and grasp the whole of the elephant. We can only have so much of an objective view about only so much of the universe. Scientists might be able to develop a map of the human genome, but will they ever know why humans exist in the first place? In doing philosophy and theology we enter a kind of knowing that is much more like the blind men rather than the scientist.

If you take the time to read several of my entries here, you will see me starting into a subject in one entry and then backing up and starting into it again in another. I am attempting to scratch a little away here and a little bit more there. I’ll confess that I have tried to develop a book-length writing project, but my trouble is that the whole format of a book feels very modern to me in the way that the author is intended to conceive an overall idea and to tease it out in two or three hundred some pages. This option of the blog, with all its faults, affords me a very different way of writing. Instead of beginning with a strong notion of what I know and what you, the reader, need to learn, I am attempting to open a discourse with you.

Before I finish this entry (I’ll move onto worship and art on another day) I need to explain to those of you who are already familiar with the modernist/post-modern discussion that I don’t claim to be either. My hope in trying to explore a pre-modern way of thinking is to claim as thoroughly a Christian way of thinking as possible. I’ll borrow from the Matrix film to explain this. While the movie on many levels smacks of postmodernism, it is in many ways a modernist narrative clothed in postmodernist garb. It is highly modernist in the way that it proposes a myth of objectivity. Neo, the hero, is able to completely disconnect from the false world of the matrix and stand completely outside of it in order to see its faults and deceptions.

None of us have this luxury. No matter how much we would like to take our own personal experiences and the ideas in which we live and breathe (those that make up our contemporary society) along with our own delusions and slap them on the dissecting table, we cannot do this. Nevertheless, the work of a Christian attempting to live faithfully is to critique the prevailing ideas of society in as best a manner as he or she can.

I accept that I have both modernist and postmodernist notions swimming around inside my head. However, as a dogmatic Christian, I believe that by the power of the Spirit and through the many edifying agencies of the church, I may participate in an ongoing critique of the prevailing ideas of society and that this will, in time, transform me more and more into the likeness of Christ. In this manner every thought will be taken captive and I will then present my body as a living sacrifice so that my mind will not be conformed to the ideas of the world, and that instead I will be able to discern the will of God.

This is the good old language of sanctification that the church has taught from its beginning. Because my faith rests in the teachings of those who have gone before, those in the historical community of faith, I feel free to not have every idea nailed down and every question answered exhaustively because the ultimate work of truth is God’s and not mine. Flannery O’Conner winsomely stated that since she was Catholic she didn’t have to invent the world every time she put pen to paper. Yet, while it is his work, Jesus invites his disciples to participate in the joy of the labor. And this is my joy in writing to you.

This weekend I attended my ten year college reunion and was privileged to sneak into a ceremony honoring the work and career of Beatrice Batson who taught at Wheaton for thirty three years and has since overseen the development of the Shakespeare Special Collection. In her acceptance address she concluded with a poem by T.S. Eliot that gets at what I am trying to suggest here about the limitations of science. I’ll leave you with it.

Opening Stanza from Choruses from "The Rock"

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Gospel Friday & Public Discourse

Today we did our second "Name It" chapel. Last week our topic was "Are Catholics Christian?" Today we addressed alcohol and substance abuse. Many people might be confused why the first discussion was even necessary. It seems like a big fat "Duh?" to me personally. However, many of the students at Hope come from churches and schools (on the West side of the state) where they have very little exposure to Catholic believers, if any. I am very excited about these chapels because they allow us to open a dialogue. And even if the relationship between Catholics and Protestants is not an issue for some, the manner in which we table this discussion can serve as a model for how we approach other topics that might seem delicate to others.

The issue of public discourse is of particular importance to the church today. Those of us who hold strong convictions especially need to be careful with how we share our faith. It is painful to observe that it is Christians who are often the greatest hindrance to the Gospel. Fundamentalism is dangerous in its extreme forms and at least unattractive in its milder expressions.

You might be confused by the fact that while I criticize fundamentalism, I still remain a dogmatist. What is the difference? Dogma, or in the Greek, dokein, means "to seem." Holding to what I believe "to seem" to be true is a much softer understanding of belief than what is typically understood when thinking of a dogmatist, the stereotypical Bible-bashing bigot. How does one come to hold beliefs that "seem" to be true? The motivations are many. Personal spiritual experience ranks high among Evangelicals today who rely on emotions to dictate their faith. Family and community nurture is also a main driving force for others. Some come to belief through intellectual searching, but I base a large portion of my faith on history. Personal experience, family, along with reading and discussion have all been vital for my faith journey. But ultimately I don't want to rest my faith just on what "seems" right to either my own individual emotions, the parochial boundaries of my family and church community or the limitations of my intellect. If I am a dogmatist, I rest my faith on what has "seemed" to be true to the universal Church, Christians across the world, for centuries. The Nicene Creed specifically is nourishing and helpful in its thoroughness, simplicity and elegance.

Without going too far on a tangent, I'll simply say that this form of dogmatism is an attempt at a pre-modern notion of belief. It is Western empiricism that has confused many of us into holding a reductionist, white-knuckled notion of certainty. Such a notion of certainty forces ideas into a corner. Certainty stops a conversation, and it is charitable conversation that we as believers should be after.

Fundamentalist certainty is harmful to both believers and our neighbors as well. It is harmful to believers because it reduces faith so that it can fit a tiny box of final conclusions rather than a journey toward communion with a loving, transcendent being. We end up worshiping a list of certainties, a formula of postulates, rather than an all-loving, ever-present, yet completely Other fountain of creativity and life. On the other hand, it is harmful to our neighbors in the way we become lecturing and patriarchal. We use faith to to gain power over our neighbors. We hover over them as if to cast a spell of belief to manipulate them over to our side, when in fact we should be inviting them to a banquet table. Ours should be a posture of hospitality and service where we seek to understand before we seek to be understood as St. Francis's prayer so beautifully puts it. In this way we grow in Christ-likeness--to be like Jesus, who emptied himself of his status and power as God and made himself vulnerable to his creation. Through his example, we see that love is best expressed in the context of powerlessness, a type of Christianity that is rarely displayed in our Western tradition.

So, I found myself praying that this Friday would be a "Gospel Friday" because our topic on alcohol abuse could cut so closely to the bone of Christian community. Alcohol could be seen as such a typical topic for campus ministers to rail against. It is an example of how fundamentalist believers place drinking on the list of hard and fast taboos in a conversation-stopping kind of a way. My prayer was that we would be able to, instead, open the conversation with students about wisdom in alcohol consumption and to ultimately point to the hope of the Gospel in that conversation; there is forgiveness and healing. Again, the concern for us is discourse, and my contention is that under the surface of healthy discourse is a kind of charitable listening, a kind of sharing and communion. This is the love the Gospel introduces us to, not someday in heaven safe from the penalty of hell, but today here on this earth. If we as Christians can grow to posture our faith in this kind of a generous and vulnerable way, then we will be able to re-frame the Gospel. Our dogma will no longer be understood as rigid, irrelevant and heavy-handed, but welcoming, hopeful and healing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Already a nuance....Artistry vs. Corporate Worship

My friend Kara who is now living in NYC far away from our beloved home church in Oklahoma City, emailed me a good thought that is worth responding to here. I need to nuance, or finesse my statement about private worship. What I am getting at is that I personally don't find much of worship music artistically interesting in and of itself. That is why I don't listen to it on my own very often. But now I'm speaking as a snobby artist/song writer/recording engineer instead of a pastor.

Here is a good place for me to introduce Hope College to my own musical side project, Ordinary Neighbors. If you are interested, I've got a few roughs of some of our songs on This is the culmination of several years of working with independent artists at home. I recorded several small records for friends so that I could learn how to use microphones. My ultimate goal was to be able to record myself, but I kept putting off my own music. In some ways I do enjoy helping others develop their creative ideas more than working on my own songs. It is the pastoral part of me that loves to see others flourish and discover more about their gifts, but in another sense it has always been a cop out, a way of hiding from myself and my own unreasonable expectations for myself. It is easier to dream about something. To talk about it and never actually attempt it because once it is attempted it becomes real and may fall short of your dreamy ideal.

Fortunately, I got married. Along came Susanna Childress and her poetry. We started writing songs together over the phone when she lived in Tallahassee and I was in Oklahoma. I'd lay one phone on the sofa near my guitar and then sing into the other on my shoulder. Putting her poems to music has been a delight. With her companionship, I've found the desire and urge to make some recordings. They are growing and changing, and now it is time, not fear, that is holding me back. It might still be another year before I can imagine the record being completed. Until then, myspace will have to do.

I've been hesitant to make these songs well-known amongst the Hope community because they are so different than the kind of music I do for chapels. I haven't wanted anyone to suppose that my intention has been to take our corporate worship music in that severe of an artistic direction. I very much want the sound of our music to be shaped by the talents and interests of the students who play with me. I see now that all of my experience doing home recordings with friends has taught me to work with these students at Hope College. If someone were to ask me what the sound of our music is or should be, I would want to say that first and foremost the sound will be worshipful. What that exactly means depends on who is playing that day. My job is not to impose my own particular musical interests on the body of Christ. Will my taste influence our worship? Of course, but I work really hard to hand much of the creativity, song selection, and overall sound of the music over to the students.

Here is the interesting thing I have discovered after returning to worship leading: I find some of the artists and records that I love hard to listen to. The artistry, while interesting and exciting, is often heavy. Take Elliot Smith for example. I don't know if I've been more influenced by any other song writer. Sometimes when my itunes is on random and one of his songs comes up, I find myself absolutely giddy. There is so much about the sound and feel of his music that is right and good. His is a beautiful lament, sometimes angry, often sad, sometimes generous but always honest, always reliable. His music is consistent and steady. Unfortunately there isn't any of the final gladness, the bold hope of my faith in his music though. Now that I'm singing with Hope students regularly, my taste and hunger for God is more vibrant and tangible. There is something very helpful about doing this now instead of teaching that has awakened my faith. In this season I find that I miss something even in my beloved Elliot Smith.

It is tough. There is not much that I am aware of that combines something that is artistically interesting and also spiritually compelling in a way that I could categorize it as worship. I know that here I'm rubbing up against the unfortunate delineation between the secular and the sacred that is so harmful, but I can't tackle that today. Let me say for now that I don't distinguish between secular and sacred, but I do draw a distinction between "devotional" or "liturgical" as genres of art just like I make a distinction between action, comedy and drama in film. Charlie Hall, Brad Kilman, and Joel Limpic's latest records are exceptions in the way they are creative and devotional, but then again I'm biased because they are friends. I find myself wanting to say something that might be troubling to me in the future. This may come back to bite me some time soon, but here it is: I'm not sure if the corporate gathering of worshipers should even have the most progressive forms of musical art incorporated in its singing. Often the most progressive music is appreciated by a smaller group of listeners. It can often be elitist and even exclusive. What I mean is that you might need to acquire a taste for it. It might take time for you to understand its originality by comparing and contrasting it to other music. Art is mostly a conversation between artists and society, and not everyone can physically participate in the same conversation at the same time. So, these artists don't need to try to be elite and exclusive; the exclusivity is only part and parcel to the limitations of the artistic conversation. That is why we have regional art forms, particular crafts that are unique to a particular people. And I believe this is what is ultimately interesting to me about independent music, its various conversations and possibilities.

There is the quaint stereotype of the indie music fan. Have you seen the button that reads, "cheer up emo kid"? When you consider indie music as a scene and try to stereotype it as the kids that wear plastic rim glasses, wear clothes from the thrift store and have long bangs that wag over their eyes, you can probably find a lot of music that sounds the same. However, I would like to protest that this stereotype is only the facade of what is really happening in the independent music world. There are thousands of artists across the world who now have home recording equipment (like me) who are finding their own voice and their own expression. Of course much of this is not worth listening to, but nevertheless, do the math. The potential for newer and more original music to be discovered is greatly increased today.

The point is not that corporate worship shouldn't be creative and grow in its creativity. The point is that creativity is not an end in itself for a worship leader. God is our purpose and drawing the attention of all mankind to him. I want to be creative in so far as it serves the building up of the body of believers that I am leading. Now I'm talking like a pastor. For example, so many in the church are stuck on a controversy between hymns and contemporary praise choruses. These people are not thinking pastorally. The question cannot be solved in an abstract cultural war. It can only be answered in the particular application of music to a particular body of believers. The pastor's question is always, what will truly serve my congregation in their pursuit of becoming like Christ and witnessing him to the world? This is no acquiescence to popular culture here either. Perhaps the best thing for a particular group of young worshipers is learning the great hymns of the church. Or perhaps the best thing for a mature group of worshipers is learning to sing a simple praise chorus; perhaps they need to re-frame their understanding of worship by simplifying their singing. Thus you can now see why I wouldn't want to impose my own artistic interests on a group of believers. If they can profit from my own style and taste, then so be it. I'll implement that creativity, but at the same time I make myself accountable to the other musicians and our ministry staff to help me discern if my artistry should ever become distracting and unhelpful.

So, Kara, my friend, we all are called to both private and public worship. Yes. I am just using a lot of words to explain why I don't personally enjoy much worship music on my own but still enjoy it corporately. Some might call it contradictory, but as a pastor I call it love. I can share in a particular kind of music meaningfully with a body of believers because our experience together in the singing of the song, in the communion of the saints, is what gives it life and meaning. On its own, the same song played in my car doesn't carry the same meaning. Plus, more often than not the worship CD has been recorded in such a polished and annoying way that I get frustrated. But now I'm talking like an artist/snob/recording engineer again, and that is a whole other conversation. Thanks for being the first to reply!

Hello World

Actually, I'm writing this mostly for the Hope College students that I work with. Albeit there is a definite fear and trepidation that I feel when sitting down to begin a new blog (my previous blog got me into a little trouble...but that is a whole other story). The fear comes from that normal nervous twitch we all feel when we risk and put ourselves out there to be known in any of the obivous ways--a hand shake, a phone call, an invitation. Putting yourself out there on the net is a strange way for a churchman to present himself, but I know that students today are accessing each other and so much other information on the web. I don't want to compete with everything that is out there. I guess I'd just like to be a part of the conversation in some way.

I'm also nervous about this as a minister. I've talked about this with other pastors. There is a general fear that if we let people get close to us then perhaps they might not like what they discover. So it's easier for pastors and public leaders to remain distant and aloof. There is much to be said for modesty and what has come to be known as "boundaries." We need to understand the limits of our relationships, protect our time and energy and families. However, I don't believe that ministry, the church, the fellowship of the saints should be constrained by our contemporary notions of privacy. Our collective American or Western psychology has been nurtured by a hyper sense of the self. One author in the late 70's, Christopher Lasch, named it the Culture of Narcissism. We have lost the sense of the Other, as in the other human, other world (ie. creation, nature), the other as in God. We define ourselves primarily by our first names and not our last names. Family, region, country, occupation, community, faith, all these things have less and less potential to shape and define us.

This is why I am a worship leader now. It really isn't the music that I enjoy. What keeps me coming back is the incredible communal nature of worship. It is uniquely counter cultural on many levels. I rarely listen to worship music at home or in the car because worship is a public event. I've struggled greatly with assuming this public role. It's really bizarre how people in town stop to say hello to me. People I don't recognize know me and have a familiarity with me that I don't have with them. I don't like being in front of people. I don't even want my wife to throw birthday parties for me because it is hard for me to be the center of attention. But for the sake of the people of God to commune with each other and with the godhead? Yep, that is pretty stinkin' amazing.

I know it is in vogue among some believers to bash contemporary worship music. An acquaintance of ours (Susanna's and mine) is a very popular author in the evangelical community. And she has referred to it as those, "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs. There is a lot to unpack there which I won't go into now. I have sympathy for those who are looking to different historical traditions for nurture. I can understand many of the critiques of contemporary worship music as being hyped, individualistic, shallow, and feel good. But many of these critiques are made in the abstract by people who are looking from the outside. When the rubber hits the road with a real community in a real place and a real time, and if this community is attempting to sort out its faith in fear and trembling in the context of our present society...well, in such a circumstance I find myself deeply moved by the way the students of Hope College participate in this contemporary form of singing to God. I don't have a community here in Holland yet since we've only been here for just over a year. We are looking for a church home still, but in the meantime singing with these students inspires and warms me.

So, in an attempt to make myself better known by them, I've decided to put up this blog. Anyone who cares to read this, please feel free to interact with me. Let's make this a conversation. peace peace