Inspiration hides in the unlikeliest of places. This morning, mine was found in this article about how suicide victims’ corpses were treated in Medieval and Renaissance-era France. It’s a fascinating read about how those who committed suicide were seen as sub-human. Utterly cut off from the communion of believers. Truly ironic. A victim’s perception of their life was of being unworthy and cut-off. Society, perhaps in response to the blood on its hands from having failed as its brother’s keeper, confirmed the victim’s suspicions by condemning not its own failure to “rescue the one,” but rather the offense of hopelessness in the lost sheep.
Toward the end of the article, Wong writes about people being reduced to “bits of meat,” utterly void of humanity and worth. It conjures up images of Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer, or most recently, Geoffrey Portway. This is human nature at its darkest. The ultimate dehumanization of another person. Bits of meat whom God formed in her mother’s womb and counted the very hairs on her head as He made her in His very image. This is the antithesis of empathy. Empathy, the birthplace of compassion and of intelligent design.
For some, this dehumanization is proof that a loving God cannot exist. I can’t help but wonder if their response echoes that of Medieval society to suicide victims. When confronted with such hopelessness, they respond with more hopelessness. Pain is not the proof that comfort does not exist, but the proof that it is utterly necessary. The truth of evil confirms the reality of good. If God loves us the way Scripture tells us he does, and is omnipotent and ever-present as described in those same Scriptures, we must believe he is fully present and aware of the dehumanizing, cannibal potential of the human spirit. He inhabits the room filled with evil as he inhabits the room filled with good. When we stare so deeply into the blackness of the human soul that we find the undying love of God, we can have only one response. Worship.
Yesterday I read this article by my friend and colleague, Randall Bradley, about the need for desegregating worship. It was a wonderful response to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I couldn’t agree more with his call for unity in our worship. I resonate with the insights of Doug Lawrence and Bob Burroughs, who write for Creator as well. Much of their wisdom informed the philosophy of blended worship, though it is unfair to label such timeless insight as dated (as is a common perception of blended worship). Unity in the Church has always been and always will be a true north. Unity is a sign of seeing people as Christ sees them, and disunity is a sign of human nature separating us from one another. This is core. This is true. I think this is at the heart of Randall’s hope for the Church, and it’s why he, and Doug, and Bob, and I devote our careers to this conversation. However, articulating the realities of such a core truth is immensely complex and important to this conversation.
A primary way to help facilitate desegregation in our worship is to model it in how we form worship leaders and thinkers. No one disagrees with this, just as no one disagrees with the principle of unity. However, the realities are that practical forces (like our human nature) will fight against unity at every turn. As I welcome more and more diverse students into my church music program, two truths emerge. First, we see before our very eyes how many different perspectives exist and how insular our past experiences have been. We realize that we have been given the false impression of multiculturalism (not unlike the false impression that a mega-church is a family). We are given the false impression of equality in the US because of the American Dream, when the reality is that we are as (if not more) separated into classes than ever.
The second truth that emerges is that infusing our curriculum with practical applications is incredibly difficult. How can we explore the practicalities of leading a standard, capo g, U2-inspired worship team, a traditional church choir (often in need of partnering with said worship team), and a Hammond B3-driven black gospel band? And we haven’t even acknowledged international student needs and opportunities for wider unity. The practicalities conspire against depth of experience, and we make huge compromises in where we focus attention. I can’t help but see more of what we didn’t explore than what we did. It feels a mile wide and an inch deep.
I referenced a U2-inspired worship team above. For the unaware, the core sound of worship music from around 2000 to 2010 or so was based on U2. David Crowder and Chris Tomlin’s worship songs from this time are prime examples. Thanks to a dotted eighth delay set to 125 BPM and a capo, bad guitarists like me could do our best impression of Edge, and I have the forearm tattoos to prove it. But U2 is over. This model is finished. Billy Corgan isn’t the first to call this out in this interview, but he’s definitely the most popular new example. To put this in a cross-generational context, U2 is to worship music what Lucille Ball is to network television. That level of market dominance no longer exists.
For those of you who were lost in the U2 talk and reengaged by the Lucille Ball reference, let me caution you to avoid sinking your teeth into your I told you so moment. It stings to hear that blended worship is dated and arguably a failure. If success is permanence, blended worship is a failure. If success is permanence, the traditional worship of the 1950’s (which blended worship replaced in many cases) is also a failure. If success is permanence, every “how” of worship is a failure. If success is permanence, the closest thing to a success is pure orthodoxy.
The hope of orthodoxy is to remain true to Biblical ideals. The reality of orthodoxy is sub-culture and legalism, an existence too far removed from the world. Too “not of” to be “in” the world. Is the solution to the problem of unity to create a worship language so foreign to all cultures that it creates equal identity through equal effort to embrace? If so, what is this language? Is Latin (literally or figuratively) the answer? Ironically, Latin feels too Calvinist to me in this case. To embrace Latin is to so deny the heart language and the senses that they play no role in worship. I believe these to be the very gifts of God and tools for worshiping him. How can denying them be following him? On the other hand, Randall is still right. Giving over to our target-marketed desires is not the solution either. We know this. Our history and our present prove this. Furthermore, this flies in the face of the very core of what I believe to be the call to follow Christ, which is that it isn’t about our wants. It isn’t about us. This is the most counter-cultural truth of Scripture. If you want to understand worship, look to Christ, not Ayn Rand.
So we keep chasing our tail. The wonderful gift of ambiguity about the “how” of worship in the New Testament just keeps on giving. Our Father has placed us in the deep end of the pool with no raft for one reason and one reason alone. We will only learn to swim by fully embracing the truth that our survival is only possible through swimming as hard as we can for Him. We are drowning. We cannot save one another. If we try, we will only pull one another to certain death. Our only hope and our only responsibility is to call others to swim for him. Here we find a truth that unifies us in ways we could have never imagined. Thanks for writing the article, Randall. I think you were swimming for God, and I think you helped me swim for him this morning too.
There have been two moments during C3 that I was glad the crowds were small and that those who would hold me responsible for the decency of the content would question my management or the worth of C3. The first was when David Bazan sang Wolves at the Door, which included the lyrics, “You’re a goddamn fool, and I love you.” It was a very real address to modern day Pharisees. It had a curse word (even the breaking of a commandment, if you interpret the Scripture that way), but it also had a tremendous amount of truth. The second such moment was when Eef Barzelay sang Love vs Death, which includes the lyrics:
God, oh he does exist
And especially loves atheists
Because they don’t lick his behind
They are brave to suspect
The doubts are all in their mind.
Taken out of context, those are just dirty words and thoughts. Taken in context, they are dirty words and thoughts that are incredibly poignant and important. David has written across his journey from belief with questions, to disbelief with a knowing compassion for the believer and a healthy disdain for the Pharisee. I wrongly presented Eef as a non-believer both in this blog post and when he was with us. He didn’t claim to believe in God during my interview, but he did distance himself from some of his more biting songs about God. I recall that seeming strange, since he is so comfortable in his role as a “vessel” as he calls it, never shying from representing either side of the tipping point of belief. It was a primary component of this post about artists and ships at sea. He surprised me in an interview (which I can’t find to link) two months ago in which he very easily commented, “I believe in God, sure. But I’m not some crazy evangelical Christian or anything.” I know from my conversations with him about belief that he (like all of us who are honest) is on a unique journey of belief. He will defy any label we attempt to place on him, be it a belief label or a record label. Still, this is the heart of conversations about Christianity + culture. Had we judged them by the tried and true “curse words and movie ratings” criteria, they would have threatened my job security.
In my last post I pointed out the dehumanizing of a chapel speaker by cell phone use. There was another moment in that talk I would like to revisit. Mary asked people to raise their hands if they had been hurt by people in the church, and you could feel the empathy and identification in the room, even beyond the large number of raised hands. Mary writes from the perspective of the victim, and gives voice to their often quieted or dismissed perspective. It’s beautiful, and I love it. But it’s only part of the story. She never asked people to raise their hands if they ever held the knife and hurt people within the church. If all this hurt is happening (and it is), somebody in that room of 800 students has done some hurting. Many of whom probably did so as a response to the hurt they have felt, but rest assured, we have all been Brutus. The Pharisee. The mean girl.
I’ve heard it said that everyone hates Congress but loves their congressman. Maybe that’s because they see him as being like them. He’s from their town. He’s one of us. He isn’t one of them. Our Texas senator Ted Cruz recently challenged us to speak out against Obamacare in order to send a message to congress because (and I’m paraphrasing and unable to find the link) government is at its best when politicians are scared. Ted Cruz is a professional politician. So am I, in some ways. But not as talented as he, to be sure.
(Now is when I test whether mentioning politics will put readers on the defensive, of they will avoid the bait and remain engaged)
As I’ve said in many other posts, stories are important. There is a reason why Scripture’s very existence has depended upon story. Jesus’ story is arguably the greatest story ever told. One of the great things about it is how amazing it is to identify with him. I have more than one friend who is both an atheist and a lover of Jesus (though not in a committed relationship with him). No one loves the story of Jesus because they see themselves in the eyes of the Pharisees.
One of my best college memories was the first time I sang Bach’s Passion According to St. John. For those who don’t know, it is essentially an unstaged opera about the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Christ. It is a highlight of the massive history of retelling and reenacting this story that stretches back to, well, the day after it happened. As a choir member, you play the role of the crowd, so you’re often an angry mob. You hold the knife. You sing/scream “crucify him!” As a kid who was raised in the South during the Jesus Movement in a time/place when anti-intellectualism ran deep and I was called to be a musician and an academic, this moment taught me two important lessons (among others). First, contrary to what I’d been taught, classical music and intellect aren’t tangential to spiritual formation. They aren’t just “nice pursuits for my spare time.” They can be a primary means by which I encounter God and am further formed in his image.
The second lesson was that I am a Pharisee. This is a big admission for a kid who remembers vividly a woman in her early fifties with grey hair yelling at my father (the pastor) during a Wednesday night business meeting that he was a “nigger lover.” See, dad had asked a black man who managed the local McDonalds to help with the youth (back when only teenagers, not under-employed college graduate worked there). This man knew teenagers and knew how to manage and relate to them. He also happened to be black, and at this Baptist church in North Carolina, that was clearly an issue. This is part of the primary pain that I have returned to the Bible Belt to assuage. I am called to love the Pharisee, the fundamentalist. And I am absolutely one of them. At the risk of reusing a video and seeming stuck, this Sufjan song is me too. I am hurt. I hurt people. This is not lost on God. Oh the beauty and grace of seeing and being seen.
I should begin this post with two disclaimers. First, the wisdom of these words is not new. It’s been shared throughout history, and increasingly so during the rise of technology and progress (i.e. the human existence). Secondly, for those of you who are not part of the UMHB campus community, this is something of a “family thing” in a sense, but it may very well apply to your family. That being said (or written)…
Yesterday was an interesting day for many reasons. We’re still adjusting to our record enrollment (both as a campus and a music department). Rooms are full. Even Walton Chapel’s crowd forces people to ask to slide by to an open seat. We could avoid that exchange before. I went to chapel because Mary Demuth was speaking, and I enjoy the vulnerability and wisdom of her work as a writer. She shares openly about having endured sexual abuse at age 5. She began her talk by putting a picture of herself at this age on the screen and sharing this story with us. I stand at the back of the room so that I can slip out if necessary, so my vantage point is unusual. I’m also predisposed (as a worship designer) to study the crowd as much or more than the platform.
I should point out that during my commute yesterday, the news on my NPR stream was about Ariel Castro, the man convicted of imprisoning and victimizing three women in Cleveland for several years, having hanged himself in his cell. It was an ironic twist, given that he had pled to the charges in order to get life in prison instead of the death penalty. Whether his suicide was a response to his unwillingness to serve his time, from the weight of his guilt, or both, we will never know. What we do know is that sexual abuse is uniquely destructive, and both Castro and Demuth illustrate this fact.
As I studied the chapel experience, it was the small screens as well as the large one that caught my eye. In the background, a black and white image of a five-year-old girl whose abuse was being detailed. In the foreground, smart phone screens, some with the ubiquitous blue header of Facebook, others with iTunes, and others with less recognizable formats. It was impossible not to take in the full picture and what was actually happening in that moment.
John Mayer has a song on his No Room for Squares CD that I love to quote as a reminder to students not to be so intent on taking notes for a test that they are not present in the lecture/discussion. The song is called 3x5, and it is about how he didn’t take pictures of an experience because he wanted to see the world with both of his eyes (instead of one eye through a camera lens). The analogy is appropriate to those hearing (if not listening to) a person share her deepest pain in a room of 800 people while looking at their phone. That happened. It wasn’t imagined. I don’t know to what extent Mary realized it, since the most engaged are at the front of the room, often shielding the platform from the disengagement back of the room.
As I consider curriculum and worship design to engage people, I can’t help but take this scene to heart. No amount of marketing or smoke machines will fix this. It is a fundamentally ancient issue of dehumanizing those around us. We all do this. I do this. It is me at my worst. The sad fact is that we do this to one another while we scream to be humanized and seen. This isn’t a design issue. This is a human issue. As much as I shrink from many of the calls by Christian leaders to be counter-cultural (often about elements of culture we should avoid), this is one I can echo and echo loudly.
One of the most prominent critiques of art created within the confines of evangelical Christianity in recent decades has been its lack of tension or mystery. Whether you agree with or reject this assertion, you will likely agree that The Civil Wars is not only free from this criticism, but a study in unresolved tension and unanswered questions. By now you likely know two things about the duo. First, they were produced and formed by long-time CCM producer Charlie Peacock. Secondly, they are the most successful recording artists to call it quits at the height of their fame in a long, long time.
Musical tastes are very personal things, even for those whose job it is to be objective about such things. It is, after all, dancing about architecture. Even if The Civil Wars is not your favorite band, you can still acknowledge that they are a group built on two-part harmony and tension. Every element of the group both fights and romances the other. Even the name, so familiar to us that it loses its irony and inherent tension, points to civility and war. The lyrical hooks are almost all dichotomous.
Poison and wine.
I don’t love you, but I always will.
C’est la vie, C’est la mort (Such is life, such is death.)
I don’t want to go, I don’t want to stay.
I wish you were the one, the one that got away.
I wanna give up, but I won’t.
I don’t wanna fight, but I’ll fight with you.
Some of this is a hallmark style, rooted in the back and forth between two people in a relationship. Some of it, especially the tunes influenced by roots music, is good old fashion “life is tough, but life is a gift” music. It’s the kind of honest songwriting that thankfully doesn’t work as an opener for a prosperity gospel or “all the questions have been answered” kind of sermon. Some of this dichotomy seems like a product of pairing two very different people.
This difference is palpable in live performances, as Joy flexes her coy, CCM-inspired persona while John Paul’s hardened, Alabama boy, songwriter ways fidget and grumble and grow impatient for louder waters that songs like “I Had Me a Girl” deliver. I might be wrong, but I imagine him having already set aside the money to gather like-minded roots musicians to his farm like a He-man Woman Haters Club that only allows the likes of Alabama Shakes to sit in and represent the fairer sex. He’s had his fill of coy.
But together, they have been magic. Perfectly matched sonically, if grating personally. Aside from some great music that is both new and old at the same time, they have reminded us that iron does sharpen iron. They remind us of those times and relationships that were as maddening as they were invigorating. They remind us that even things that may not end well can still produce tremendous good. Maybe that “good” doesn’t look like we thought it would, but it is, most definitely, still good.
Summer is winding down, and the academic year is less than a month away. Most years that means I’m reflecting on the reading I’ve done to prepare for fall classes, but this summer was very different. This summer was for my boys, and we have made the most of it.
I’ve never been much of a gamer, but I have gotten in to games for a few months from time to time. This summer, Minecraft was the perfect way for me to connect with my eight-year-old son. It’s a seemingly simple game where you walk around performing mundane tasks. The graphics look like something from the 80’s. But the more you play the game, the more you realize the complexities of the game.
When I was eight, I was told that things like video games were a distraction from important things, namely learning (for school) and being a better Christian. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that a lot of the things that were supposed to be distractions were the places where God spoke to me and I gained important wisdom for my life and faith. I’m not substituting Minecraft for math (though we’ve spent a lot more time on the former than the latter this summer), but I am trying to teach my sons to seek wisdom in everything they do. After extensive research, these are the things Drew and I have learned from Minecraft:
1. Resources are important, and you have to conserve or regenerate them to survive.
2. At first you think the game is all about what happens above ground, but you eventually realize that the real game happens below the surface.
3. Sometimes you have to get a stick and dig your way out of a deep hole. It may take a long time, but no one is going to dig for you.
4. Your world has all of the resources you need to do amazing things. You just have to work hard at finding them. On the other hand, if you burn up too many resources mining for diamonds, you’ll end up poor.
5. Rare things like gold and diamonds are fragile. They only last if you hide them away or use them as decorations. It’s the common things like dirt and rocks that last.
6. While it might be safest to sleep at night and recharge, it gets boring. Sometimes you just have to venture out and face the zombies.
I walk a line, and often fail, between making this blog personal and corporate. As much as I am concerned about being overly personal, I also find the best “corporate” insights come from a very personal place. It has been a unique summer for my family and me. One in which we’ve had to closely consider resources. We’ve had to focus on what lies below the surface. We’ve faced down some zombies. We’ve dug our way out of some deep holes (and still are). We’ve found truth in our distraction.
One of the essays on the exam for my CCM class asks students to construct a case for or against the notion that artist intent has any significant bearing on their work once it is completed. This stems from discussions about what artists of faith (or without) can rightfully express. Some believe songs used in their worship should be written only by those within their community, and one of the arguments is “so that we know the heart (and intent) of the artist.” This spawns several obvious questions. How do you know the heart of the artist? What if you later find that you were wrong? Does that mean you have sinned by using their work? Does that render their songs unacceptable? Usually the response backs away from the premise at that point and simply seeks to support artists whose heart and work deserve it. They say they simply hope to champion the work of pure motive and, presumably, withhold support from those deemed impure. Even if the quality of the work deemed impure is superior. Can you see the slippery slope?
This philosophy is a cousin to the one that allows believers to only watch/listen/read the work of “Christian artists.” They also tend to use labels like “Christian art.” The thought that God could speak through a fallen (or even unwilling) vessel is rejected. The gate of acceptance is so narrow as to remove not only the non-believer, but the “inappropriate” content, usually deemed so based upon a cosmetic formula that is easily decoded by crafty publishers and record labels. The slope is equally as slippery as the previous one.
The underlying question is whether or not God speaks through the non-believer or (even worse) the charlatan claiming to be a believer. In other words, what if some of the miracles claimed by these disgraced TV evangelists are real? Surely God has the power to do so. One of the first people we studied in the CCM class is Lonnie Frisbee. If you don’t know who he is, watch the documentary on him. He is credited with miracles, mass conversions, and leadership of the founding of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements that shaped much of the Jesus Movement and praise and worship in America from the 1970’s. It turns out, he also began his ministry by using psychedelic drugs to experience the Holy Spirit, was tormented by his homosexuality, and eventually died of AIDS, only to be written out of the history books of these organizations and the American church. Was the entire movement based upon carefully staged illusions? Perhaps. Do we know God uses the non-believer and the charlatan for his purposes? Absolutely.
So what does this have to do with lawyers, artists, and other ships at sea? First, artists. We saw in person the depth and beauty of Eef Barzelay’s songs about belief and disbelief during his C3 interview this year. We explored the theological messages and tension of Django Unchained in this blog. I fully believe God spoke through both, though I also believe neither Eef nor Quentin Tarantino were likely seeking God’s guidance and favor. Eef, despite his brutal history of interactions with Christians, steps into the fray between belief and disbelief and honestly advocates both points of view. I wonder if more Christians would be well served to devote time and energy to better understanding and articulating an honest, nuanced picture of disbelief in order to better understand the Maker who speaks, even to that “hardened” heart. We Christians use that phrase “hardened heart” to describe the non-believer, but in my experienced, the heart of the non-believer is often wounded and weeping, often from injury from the hardened heart of “believers.” These “believers" are apparently not followers.
We tend to romanticize the heart of the artist. We doubt the existence of the heart of the lawyer. While I am as saddened by the failings of our judicial system as anyone, my concern tends to be for how it is impacted by capitalism. The adversarial system, as I understand it, is based upon constructing the best fight, not necessarily on revealing truth. The premise is that the purity of conflict will most effectively produce truth. Ironically, a lawyer friend I interviewed for this post explained, “You have to assume the opposing witness will lie.” She went on to tell me about a client who once, during a trial, scribbled on their legal pad (the only sanctioned way the client and attorney can communicate during opposing testimony) one word, “LIE.” The attorney’s response, “That doesn’t mean anything.”
We can discuss and debate the dynamics of how capitalism and the legal system are based on conflict and favor the wealthy at another time with those more knowledgeable to do so. My point is this, the lawyer’s job is to advocate for their client, regardless of their perceived guilt or innocence, within the confines of the law. Imagine how different it would be if the client who could prove a lack of resources was entitled to the more expensive (and capable) counsel.
My own legal career was short-lived. I was on the debate team in the six grade, at Apollo Elementary School (the fifth elementary school I attended). I was always the new kid, public school taught, and the son of a Baptist preacher, well acquainted with Wednesday night business meetings. I could pick (and often win) a word fight with the best of them, be they student or teacher. I was actually voted “One Most Likely to Conquer the World in a Bloodless Coup” by my sixth grade class. I destroyed the other team in every debate but the final one. The topic was abortion, and we drew the card to defend a woman’s right to choose. I folded. We lost. My legal career ended at the tender age of thirteen.
What is the connection between artists, lawyers, and ships at sea? Do artists AND lawyers have hearts? Absolutely. Must they abide by a moral code? Absolutely. Must they be willing to empathize and advocate for their client? I think so. But I think it’s complicated. What do you think? In Tom Cruise’s final conversation with the crooked lawyers he brought down in The Firm, he described himself “like a ship carrying a cargo that will never reach any port.” May we have the courage to shove off from the shore, even into hostile waters. May we surrender ourselves to the control of the Father’s vast sea. And when storms bear down on us, may we know that a Savior sleeps below deck, unworried by the waves and without need for the promise of safe landing.
I was in the middle of my first annual top ten list of C3 moments when a series of bombs went off. These were not the physical bombs that occurred in Boston and West, TX. There were several very compelling blog posts and online stories that made me stop and think. In a way, they cut through the bomb coverage in unexpected ways.
The first post was actually bomb-related. It appeared on a website I didn’t know, but a name that rang a bell. The site was Breitbart, and the story was about a phone conversation with the father of the Boston bombing suspects. When I scrolled down to the comments, I read some of the vicious, vitriolic language (Right Wing, in this case) that often drives online conversations about important topics. Actually, it’s language that makes its way onto the television more and more. Wikipedia confirmed who Breitbart was. I realized it was a platform with an agenda. It wasn’t a safe place. Or maybe it was too safe for Right Wing zealots.
Fair and unbiased hosts are not easy to find. That’s not exactly a newsflash. It’s a cliché. I watched a documentary on Jon Stewart yesterday. I remember when he first started, it was tough to tell exactly what side he was on. Eventually, that became very clear. I absolutely love the Daily Show, but I would love it even more if Jon had more balance in his perspective. Even his most biting criticisms of the Left don’t ring true, and the live audience doesn’t help. They lose it over criticism of the Right and courtesy laugh for the Left shots.
Is all money either red or blue? Has every corner of the globe been claimed? It feels like that. Institutions like journalism and the Church seem like they’ve adopted blue or red in exchange for the neutrality that has historically been at the heart of their missions. We seem to be experiencing the effects of a Republic without a free and unbiased media as well as one without a free and unbiased Church. Every American should be concerned about that. That is not a partisan issue.
The story about the atrocities of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell should reach just a deeply. Regardless of whether you are Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, what is described in testimony by his assistants is the closest thing to the atrocities of Uganda, Darfur, Sudan, and Syria as I have ever heard of on American soil. This is not a partisan issue. We as a nation must stop dehumanizing God’s creation. We are masters of dehumanization. It’s woven into our fallen human nature, and our history has shown equal parts dehumanizer and hero.
All of this was the backdrop to this announcement that Rob Bell will be hosting a talk show that has been picked up by ABC. Part of me is angry that he stole my idea. I am going on record today (at the risk of giving away my trade secret) that my dream is that C3 becomes "franchised" among colleges and universities across the globe as a collective conversation about issues of Christianity + culture. We need the technology to tag and mobilize the massive content to make sure the user can have access to anything and everything that is pertinent to their concern. I know the former President of the CCCU, Dr. Paul Corts, and I might need to reconnect with him for a favor. I think the CCCU would be a perfect host organization for this vision. What do you think? Can you help me? I’m more concerned with this happening than I am with getting credit, and I would love for you to join me in praying/working for this.
I know this isn’t exactly what Rob is going to do (especially since details of his show are few and far between), but hosting a safe (or should I say completely unsafe) place for conversation is what he will seek to do. His plan seems so clear now. His distance from his church and evangelical community was the cost of his less-biased reputation. But he really didn’t articulate with absolutes the idea many have attributed to him. He left massive room for interpretation. Well played. But can he be as effective, or moreso, than Jon Stewart?
There are a lot of reasons why his odds are pretty long, but I won’t point out the ones I see. If his hope is to create a place where important things are discussed with understanding, thoughtfulness, and prayer, he is doing exactly what I believe we need more than ever. I pray that is what he is hoping for and what God brings with his show. I pray that is what God brings with C3, even if no one ever hears about my vision.
Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has a program (story) that labels each movement, “What the _______ tells me.” Through music without lyrics, he portrays the lessons of nature, man, angels, and love. I’ve begun to tune myself to the lessons of the world around us, and how they apply to worship. I’ve found these applications can reach far deeper than just analogies. In other words, the lessons aren’t, “Worship is like…” but more, “If this is true, then worship…” This morning I began my day by watching a new TED talk entitled, “What makes us feel good about our work” by MIT professor Dan Ariely. Once you’ve watched it, you might agree that, “What gives our work meaning,” might be a more appropriate title.
I’ll assume you’ve watched the talk, committing 20 minutes to this idea before you’ve returned to read these thoughts. It’s a big commitment, by internet standards. Hopefully the work will have meaning for you. It did for me.
At around 12:50, he explains what he calls the “IKEA Effect,” where the act of building something assigned it more value in the eye of the assembler/owner. He also described an experiment in which half of the subjects were asked to create origami and then determine its worth, while the other half simply saw the finished product and assessed its worth. Both experiments showed that people assign much higher value to things they have been a part of creating.
The correlation to worship, or liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is obvious. The correlation to our innate programming to be creative as an act of worship and service to humanity is equally as obvious. Yet another layer of the correlation can be drawn from how one learns a craft in the first place. The most effective means of teaching craft include a mixture of instruction, application, and discovery. As teachers, we know the most lasting, meaningful lessons are ones students discover themselves, or at least assist in discovering. As parents, we know that meaningful discovery often follows a skeptical reception upon first instruction. In simple terms, sometimes the most meaningful lessons are seasoned with a dash of, “I guess dad was right.” Proof that discovery brought more meaning than instruction.
This reminds me of a recent article in Newsweek by Jared Diamond entitled, “Hold them, share them, let them run free. Why the traditional way of raising kids is better than ours.” I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t some important implications for how we design worship and present the Gospel. Maybe this is a clearer picture of how worship design for the missional church should be conceived. Perhaps if we viewed worship more like a potluck than a catered meal, we would assign its worth and meaning differently. As I write this, two of the most innovative artists we’ve hosted for C3 are exploring how they can rethink their albums and performance tours to include more involvement of local artists and the audience. True, this exploration is fueled by a lack of resources (so was the potluck vs the catered meal), but history has shown us how great advancements often grow from the soil of limited or lost resources. What could this look like in worship?
We finished this first year of C3 on Sunday, and I will be writing a year’s reflection soon. But it seemed appropriate to reflect on these last two conversations, since they happened within a few days of each other. Our time with Shara Worden on Thursday and Third Day on Sunday illustrated the broad range of perspectives on what it looks like to be an artist who cares about issues of faith and justice. Even if you weren’t there, if you watched the videos linked to their names, you can imagine the range I’m describing. Despite their differences, the core sentiment of both of these songs is essentially the same. This life is filled with challenges and we have to seek wisdom from God to respond to them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was able to spend more time with Shara before and after our public conversation, so my understanding of her is greater. I should also admit that the art she creates speaks to me in ways no one else’s work does. On the other hand, I struggle with what I think are short-sided messages in the music of Third Day, especially given their prominent role in what Evangelical culture (as I perceive it) deems edifying for worship and spiritual formation. By their own admission, this emphasis on hope and happy endings helps increase their acceptance. Some of this is under their control, some is controlled by their record label and Christian radio stations. Happy and hopeful sells. Unhappy and hopeful doesn’t sell. Don’t even talk to us about the book of Ecclesiastes (i.e. unhappy and hopeless). Sure. There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve heard this all before.
What stood out to me were the different pictures of hope that these two artists portray. My conversation with Shara made it clear that she has faced serious criticism from those who believe her work should be what they describe as, “more hopeful.” I understood some of these critics to be believers. Consider the lyrics of Be Brave. First, there is hope here. Hope that is deeply rooted in God’s direction. (I interpret her calls to God as sincere, not vain uses of his name. I don’t see a lot of vain uses of anything in her lyrics.) I also see hope in Shara’s responsibility to be the hands and feet of justice in the lives of others. Why would someone without hope call out to God, perform a worship ritual (rain dance), and answer the call to “get to work?” I get the sense that the Christians among her critics prefer their Easter without Lent. Their Resurrection Sunday without their Good Friday. It’s incomplete theology.
There are some great pictures in Third Day’s Cry out to Jesus. Real life scenarios that many of us find ourselves facing. Like Shara, they call out to God. Third Day leaves out the response to crying out that Shara included. The responsibility they describe is simply to cry out. To put this in terms of Isaiah 6:1-8 (the DNA of Christian worship structure throughout history), both cover the calling out to God and the admission of a fallen world of unclean lips, but only Shara includes the pivotal final verse where Isaiah (having performed a ritual not unlike a rain dance with a hot coal placed on his lips) responds, “Here am I. Send me.” Without this response to what we have seen and heard, we neglect the reality that we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ, especially in the face of great peril. In comparing these two songs, we see one artist checking off many of the cosmetic boxes of faith informed art, but falling short of a fuller description of the Christian walk. The other challenges the cosmetics, but articulates a more complete theology.
The primary engagement I had with Third Day was around their newest hit I Need a Miracle. This song is based on a true, but I contend, uncommon story. Let me be clear that I believe in (and have been graced by) miracles in my life when I was put to the test. Sometimes it looked like this song describes. Far more often, the miracle God gave me was in the way his people (believers and non-believers) were his hands and feet in my life, especially when I didn’t experience the miracle I had prayed for. That reminds me that God’s hope is all around me, and that I can (and should) be the face of that hope in the lives of others. Others who suffer injustice, loss, pain, and hopelessness.