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.