In a recent post I made disparaging remarks about the artistic merit of today’s contemporary worship, and in my class last week I actually said something to the effect that I wanted to pray for the souls of anyone who listens to contemporary Christian music. Yes, it is true. I have some pretty strong ideas. These are times for penetrating and active thought so that we can clarify our ideas and better inform our practices, but I also want to make sure that I don’t hurt or overly confuse with the way I present my ideas. I am especially thinking about the freshmen in my class. It is very easy to be cynical. It is even fashionable. If I want to promote anything, it is a posture of assent and belief and trust rather than skepticism. The relationship between belief and doubt is dynamic and delicate. There is much to be said about this, but for now, I’d like to offer some thoughts to explain my discomfort with most contemporary Christian music and its accompanying culture.
I remember my first semester at Wheaton when a Junior approached me and a friend and commented on how “on fire” the Freshmen were for Jesus. His disparaging comment was "well, wait till you a junior." This cynicism among upperclassmen became pretty familiar to me by the time I was a senior. Even though I saw many of my classmates wrestle with different forms of bitterness, I managed to finish college without any resentment toward the church. However, it was when I started seminary that I too began to develop feelings of suffocation and angst. Nothing in the Scriptures suggests that Christians should spend all of their time with each other. In seminary I wasn’t just surrounded by Christians; it was pastors in training that were everywhere. I lasted only a semester at that school and it took me four more years before I would gain the courage to give theological training another shot and I decided to go to school in Canada as well.
So yes, I have wrestled and I’ve let myself drown in cynicism, but I’ve also repented of this sin and have committed myself to loving the church in all of her beauties and blemishes. There was even a period of time when I tried to ditch my faith altogether. I let my heart grow numb. I stopped going to church and I stopped praying. Fortunately, faith is not my invention nor is it my possession. It is not something that I can switch on or off, and it is not something that I can discard. I am not my own. I am his and he is mine.
Fredrick Beuchner’s well known sermon, “The Magnificent Defeat,” gets at the truth of our latter journey in faith. Each of us takes our turn at being Jacob and the working out of our faith in fear and trembling is a tussling with the Angel of the Lord. The result is a broken leg, and when that heals, eventually a limp. Henri Nouwen describes us so well as “wounded healers.” It is not a matter of if we will get confused and hurt and frustrated. It is a matter of when and of how we will react with forgiveness. Forgiveness is the most unique attribute that we as Christians have access to. It is completely counter-cultural and works against all that we might consider rational. There is no sense to it. Yet, forgiveness begets forgiveness.
I would even go so far as to say that it is hard for me to trust a person who doesn’t have a limp. We spend so much of our energy building a façade trying to convince our neighbors of our stability and confidence. This is a great threat to the deepening of our faith. Repentance requires us to have truth in the innermost being. We have to be honest with ourselves, with others and with God. We must embrace the poverty of our spirits and let Christ’s righteousness reign in our bodies and minds. What troubles me about much of contemporary worship is that it reflects an insincere triumphalism that resembles something more like the warm fuzzies of a blockbuster feel good flick than honest to goodness confessional worship.
I heard Li Young Lee, a favorite poet of mine, do a reading a few years ago in Oklahoma City. He introduced a selection of newer poems with the disclaimer that they might not actually be poetry at all. Instead he hoped that his readings represented what he called, “authentic speech.” They were bits and pieces of phrases he had taken from conversations he had either had or had overheard. His thought was that there is something completely sincere about words that are formed spontaneously, and privately, without any pretense of being published.
Oh that we could attain such naiveté! If we had access to authentic speech, then we might have access to authentic worship. This must be what we appreciate about children: their lack of guile and transparency. Yet as we grow older we find that language and rationality instead make it much more possible for us to deceive ourselves. At best we discover the complexities of the world and of ideas and the words we use to represent our ideas and the world only become opaque layers. We hide behind words. We become confused and resign ourselves to this confusion and that resignation itself is an unfortunate deception. That, my dear freshmen, is the burden of adulthood. But you are right, we needn’t complicate simple things. Worship is worship. We should cut to the chase and get on with it.
However, the challenge is that the older we get, the more stale our words become. For those of us with a limp, we have trouble trusting our own words just as much as we struggle to trust ourselves. It is those who don’t struggle with words that I am suspicious of. We are surrounded by so much language. Words are everywhere bombarding our eyes and our ears from every direction, an infinity of signage and a haze of syllables. This is the status quo of our eon of advertising. As my father used to say about my adolescent mouth, for all the talk, how much is actually being said? What can feed our hungry hearts? Where is bread? How is it possible that we are not completely exhausted by all of this vanity?
One author has called ours the “Idiot Culture,” and I tend to agree that the use of language in our popular culture is limited. This is mostly due to the fact that most of our language is used for the sake of selling products. Language therefore is reduced to the task of a simple tool that is used to manipulate buying behaviors, and as language deteriorates so does our vision of the world. Anemic language results in an anemic imagination, and how then can we have eyes and ears to scratch the surface of an infinitely beautiful and loving, transcendent God?
What I fear most is that many of us have been so immersed in the idiocy of our culture that we are both ignorant of what more abundance there could be as well as we are afraid of it. It is as if we would rather have cool whip rather than fresh whipped cream or Velveeta instead of a nice smoked gouda, frozen TV dinners instead of finely prepared meal. We live in a processed, manufactured and boxed existence rather than a life of discovery and abundance.
One fortunate discovery for every of today’s Christians is the well-spring of language that has already been established for us through the Scriptures and the witness of the church throughout history. We do not need to starve for good heart warming and mind expanding texts. What we have access to in the book of Psalms alone could keep any of us occupied for a lifetime. This goes without even mentioning our rich tradition of hymnody, what even some scholars outside of the Christian church agree is most likely the greatest collection of cultural artifacts that the Western Civilization has to offer. Jerry Sitster’s newest book is aptly titled Water from A Deep Well. In his introduction he argues that if we are really hungry for God, then we cannot possibly keep ourselves from the richness of what the Fathers of the Church have to teach us.
I do wish that I could simply cut to the chase and stop quibbling about language and all these ideas. I do wish it was that simple, but I’m afraid that to make it that simple would be to believe that all that is present and all that is new is sufficient to feed my hungry soul. I’ve worshiped long enough to know how myopic and limited my own personal Christian experience has been. We should desire deep roots to weather the heavier storms of life so we can remain faithful. To establish those roots, we should learn from people who actually have weathered storms, people who have grey hair or who are even dead. I want an old faith, a faith with deep, ancient roots and that is so alive that it continues to bear fruit even for today and tomorrow.
Interestingly, what I believe my classmates at Wheaton were growing weary of was not so much a disdain for Jesus and his teachings. Instead I observed that all of us who were raised in evangelical churches going to youth group slowly begin to realize that the culture we had come from is thin in comparison to the ideas, people and events that a liberal arts education introduced us to. We began to have difficulty taking our American experience seriously. We began to question our roots, but for most of us this was a far cry from surrendering our faith completely. It was simply a natural progression of understanding our faith and finding out what faith is.
A child looks up to mom and dad as if they hung the moon; the adolescent begins to separate himself from his parents and begins to feel distant and misunderstood by them; later he begins to question his parents, their lifestyle, their beliefs, habits and even personality; full maturity develops when the child is able to forgive mom and dad for not being perfect, is able to sympathize with his parents’ weaknesses, accepts his similarities to them, and finally is able to appreciate all that his parents have taught and provided for him.
What concerns me most is our transition between adolescence and adulthood. It is as if our society is caught in a perpetual state of adolescence and is incapable of appreciating the past in order to move ahead toward the future. It is a wasteland of non-commitment, or at least what Wendell Berry calls, “contractual commitment.” Berry is the farmer and agrarian essayist who scathingly explains that we treat our land the way we treat our women. We attach ourselves only to what conveniently serves our immediate needs. However, once the contract no longer serves our needs, we break the contract. Long-term commitment then, is rare and counter-cultural—not counter-cultural in a trendy manner, not an obsession with being different for the sake of being different, but counter-cultural in the most rare and true sense of committing oneself to both the strengths and weaknesses of another person, or even an institution like a church for example. As Christians we might spend all our energy conceiving the perfect church that we make ourselves incapable of actually attending and participating in any real church in any real place and time with real people with real strengths and weaknesses.
Relationships, church participation, practicing an ancient faith, working to learn more about the great cloud of witnesses on whose shoulders we stand…these become disciplines that help us make a counter-cultural commitment to a community of faith that has gone before us and will continue long after we are gone. The question each person must ask him or herself is, where does identity come from? Can I truly be formed out of the vacuum of myself? There is no such thing as a self made man. We are each a product of someone’s nurturing and teaching. Human beings rely on each other whether they are capable of appreciating that fact or not. The tremendous benefit of being a Christian is that I have access to a great historical community of faith.
With all this being said, I return to bring these thoughts back to my initial comments about contemporary Christian music. Most of this music and much of our American church today is ahistorical and blind to its rich tradition. For this reason, it is a poor culture. I am not interested in tradition for traditions sake at all however. I’ll close with Jarslov Pelikan’s well known adage: “Traditionalism is the dead faith of those who are living. Tradition is the living faith of those who are dead.” There is no small coincidence between the degeneration of our culture into what has been called an "idiot culture" and our historical blindness. It is no wonder that popular culture continues to become more and more absurd. We have forgotten so much that humanity has already learned so well. I hope and pray that the church might some day be a vessel for preserving culture in a way that it has at various points throughout history, rather than acquiescing to cultural trends.