Category Archives: Theology

The meditations of my heart

I am currently in the process of writing a paper on “a theology of worship.” Note: a theology, not the. Thank goodness. At the same time, I have also been working on a lecture to be presented to our school faculty about the musical choices we make for our school chapel.  During this process, these words continued to come to my mind:

May the words of my mouth

And the meditations of my heart

Be acceptable in Your sight

For you Oh Lord, are my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19: 15

My childhood pastor used to pray these words every Sunday before he began to preach.  I wonder how often we think on these words before we sing our praises to God in worship. 

When speaking of the sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus, late Jewish Scholar Nahum Sarna wrote, ” If the prescribed norms are not adhered to, the sacrifice is said to be unacceptable, and the harmony in the relationship between the devotee and God that it is intended to promote remains disturbed.”  (On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel, 95). We sing of a “sacrifice of praise.”  To me, there seems to be a disconnect between this idea of acceptable sacrifice and our poppy tunes – often shallow in both musical craft and theological message.  What are we sacrificing?  What are we offering? Mediocre entertainment? Pale copies of what the godless world has come up with?  I feel it is akin to offering our leftovers to a Holy God. Thanks be to God, the only necessary and final sacrifice has been paid through the blood of Christ.  Yet, in light of this (not in spite of this) should we not all the more carefully consider our praise?

What are the words of our mouth?

What are the meditations of our heart?

Could they in any way be acceptable?

And He shall be called Emmanuel; God with Us

In honor of the Christmas celebratory events that are so soon to come upon us, I have decided to give this post an advent theme!  That, and I was inspired by the rendition of the hymn “O come o come Emmanuel,” we sang in Church on Sunday as they attempted to squish the 12th century carol into three chords and a march like rhythm driven by boom chucks on the trap set. This replete with three women singing into microphones and bopping around like they were singing “Here comes the sun doot do do do,” with egg shakers and an occasional brush of the wind chimes.  Between that and the rewritten gender-inclusive, non- militaristic lyrics, I was so distracted I had absolutely no idea what we were singing about.

For clarification, I have nothing inherently against trap sets, egg shakers or wind chimes, or even bopping women with microphones.  But seriously, stop for a minute and read these words.  What are we singing about? Who are we singing to?

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As I was ranting in the car on the way home to my husband, he pointed out (and I believe he was right) that I can’t really hold the musicians at fault- they are not trained musically, and they are just doing with they have always done.  No song would be complete without an egg shaker. =)  But here’s the thing, whether the musicians were “at fault” or not – I still think what they were doing was inappropriate.  We were singing about the incarnation of Almighty God in human flesh come to earth to ransom His people from death and Hell.  How does boom chuck and egg shaker add to or uphold that message? Someone with a great amount of skill and musical intuition could probably make it work- but it wasn’t happening on Sunday.

I think one of the things I have been most struck with lately is that if the intention of our music is to express some truth about God and His work in the world, we must express it in a way that neither dilutes or distracts from that message.   When Christ was preaching He often said things that his “audience” did not find immediately understandable or even gratifying,  some of which we still struggle with today- “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Whoa.  Yet, He didn’t seem trouble Himself saying, “oh, you’re right, that’s way too complicated, let me simplify, let me make that more ‘culturally relevant’ or let me make that ‘less offensive’.” He spoke what was true.  As servants of Christ, the music we make should be appropriate to the message we wish to send, music that is true.  It should be true to the message of Christ.

Inspired by my husband’s message to his youth group later that night, the next morning I read the book of Matthew, one of the places where we find that beloved quotation from the book of Isaiah, “’Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel (which means, God with us).”  If you keep reading through to the end of the book, Matthew concludes with Jesus saying, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Sometimes when you read only sections, this ending can seem kind of abrupt, but read as a whole- the book is meticulously crafted- ending where it began like perfect bookends.  God with us.  I feel like this might be an important concept, and probably not a real simplistic one. One that may not find itself well expressed with three chords, boom chucks or shoo-bop-sha-doobidoos.

Emmanuel, God is with us.  This is what Christmas is all about.  Almighty God has come to earth in human flesh to save us, to reconcile us to Himself, so that He may be with us even to the end of the age.  He wants you to know. He wants you to hear.  Don’t let the egg shakers distract you from the truth of the message.

Whatever is true… whatever is lovely

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(Philippians 4:8 ESV)

The Medievals, or rather- the premoderns, thought of beauty, goodness and truth to be inescapably tied to each other.  By definition, if something was beautiful, it must necessarily be also true and good.  If something is to be called good, it must be both beautiful and true, and lastly, if something is true, it is therefore both good and beautiful.  Today, however, we say, “Well, the truth can be ugly,” as well as holding both beauty and goodness to be subjective properties- subject to how each person “feels” about it.  Yet centuries of Saints (that is, our brothers and sisters in Christ) counter this thought.  They hold that our human vision of what is beautiful and what is ugly is distorted due to our inability to see as God sees.

In his treatise on Music, De Musica, Augustine says this,

“ God made sinful man ugly; but it was not an ugly act to make him so.  Man became ugly by his own wish.  He lost the whole, which, in obedience to God’s laws, he once possessed, and was given his place in part of it, since he was unwilling to practice the law, and therefore is governed by the law instead.  Lawful acts are just, and just acts are not essentially ugly. (That is, it was just of God to curse sinful man- to make him ugly.  Yet justice is true and good, and therefore beautiful- though to our human eyes it is ugly.)  Even in our bad deeds there are good works of God.  Man, as man, is good.  Adultery is bad.  But from adultery, a bad act of man, is born a man, a good act of God.”

The reformer Martin Luther speaks of the “hidden” acts of God.  The most hideous and beautiful act in all of human history are one- the crucifixion of Christ, God in human flesh.  Humanity, in the pinnacle of depravity, took the creator of the cosmos and killed Him.  In this same moment, God, the definer and essence of all that is good, beautiful and true- became Man, and gave Himself up to be killed in order that His fallen creation could be reconciled to Him.  Here is the epitome of beauty hidden within the epitome of ugliness.

What does this have to do with music or worship (the supposed topic of this blog)?  Everything.  We think of music as something completely sensuous- that is something that appeals to our senses.  We get to decide what is beautiful and what is ugly based on our personal opinion.  But what if we do not perceive reality correctly?  What if we don’t truly know what makes something ugly or beautiful?  Are beauty, truth and goodness subjective or objective? How can we worship in spirit and in truth if we do not know what truth is?

Crossover

There is this group I love to listen to called the East Village Opera Company. Basically they are a rock group who take pieces originally from opera scores and arrange them in more ‘modern’ settings. It’s a lot of fun. The most ironic thing about my liking it is probably the fact that I don’t care for opera much as a genre, nor do I listen to large amounts of rock, but the fusion of the two somehow hits me as fantastic. I stumbled across one of their albums my freshman year of college and heard Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet for the first time. I understand, for all you opera fanatics out there, that A) the fact I had never heard the flower duet until college and B) that I actually enjoyed listening to it sung in straight tone accompanied by drums and electric guitar, will be more than mildly disturbing to you. Oh well. Regardless, I ended up falling in love with the piece and ending up singing the original version as a duet with my voice teacher for my senior recital.

This idea of a crossover artist (musicians who combine different musical genres and traditions) has been gaining more and more popularity in the last few decades. Much of it has been put forth by the art-music community reaching out to the popular music community (if I may oversimplify). It could be seen as a form of musical evangelism if you will. From Josh Groban to the Three Tenors, this kind of music is popping up all over the place. It is fun, and a lot of it I find fresh- a new way to listen to things. The problem is- it isn’t really “converting” popular music lovers into giving classical music a try. What it is doing is giving people unfamiliar with art (or classical) music little snack-bites of what art music is … but it isn’t the real thing. What it is more often doing is making art music “poppy.” It is music that has been mass marketed, mass-produced, and then outsourced. Soon it will be for sale at Walmart posing as the genuine article but for half the price, half the time and half the effort. But it’s not the real thing…it just isn’t.

We in the Church often do the same thing when we “market” our faith. As is often the trend in evangelism, and especially prevalent in evangelism involving music – we attempt to reach out to those in need of Christ by putting “Christ” in their language, their style. This is not completely without precedent. In the book of Acts chapter 17, the Apostle Paul does the same thing. He appeals to Greek Gentiles through their  idea of the “unknown God,” as well as quotes from their own philosophers in a way that was both respectful and understandable to those he was witnessing to. But by the end of his testimony, Paul has distanced himself from these poets and philosophers- making his appeal only in Christ. There is validity in presenting the Gospel in a way that is comprehensible to those we are trying to reach- however caution is needed. To bring Christ into the world’s idiom dilutes His message. While a new style may bring freshness to the message, or share the old truth in a new way, it is often only a snack-bite of the whole message. It’s like Christ…not actually Christ. It’s the Walmart version- cheaper, quicker and easier. Essentially, East Village Opera Company has little to do with classical music, and Jesus Christ Super Star has little to do with the Gospel.