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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Lewis, liturgy as dance, and the regulative principle

Yesterday, I posted a link over at Religious Affections to one of my favorite quotes from the eminently quotable C. S. Lewis. Lewis offers a comparison between liturgy and dance: both must be learned, he suggests, so that when they are employed, they needn’t be thought about. When dancing (I suppose, not having any experience here myself), you do not want to have to give your attention to the dance steps; you want to give your attention to the one with whom you are dancing. In the same way, a learned liturgy allows us to give our attention, not to the liturgy, but to the one we have come to worship.

(Side note: I think there is another Lewis quote along the same lines, in which he notes the caution that, having learned the dance, it is possible then to not think of the dance steps or the person with whom you are dancing, but of something else altogether. In worship, this is the very real danger of formalism: having the liturgy ingrained, we attend to neither it nor the Lord, but to the thousand other things that suggest themselves during the hour.)

I want to make one further point from Lewis’s analogy. It is easy for us who advocate traditional or conservative worship to find support in Lewis’s words: we are the ones fighting novelty in worship, and here is Lewis castigating novelty in worship. Hurray for us! But there is a problem: many of us find ourselves in situations in which we are seeking to introduce conservatism to those unaccustomed to it. What we are introducing is not novel in any historical sense. But it is novel to our congregations, to our people. And if so, its introduction will have exactly the same intrusive, awkward, and disruptive effect that Lewis describes. They will be thinking about the form, and not about Christ. This is an enormous problem, which we must take seriously, without being evasive.

It is serious, and when we adjust the familiar liturgy, it is unavoidable. If it is serious and unavoidable (assuming we are making changes), we had better have some good justification for introducing change. It is never a light matter to disrupt the worship of Christ. Change, even good change, disrupts. Even welcome, appreciated change (which is not common) is problematic on this account: to learn a new hymn (even if you love it) is to give your attention, at least initially, to the hymn.

So ought we abandon the thought of introducing new old things? I don’t believe so. Let me offer a few points of explanation.

  • If new people are coming to our church, something about our worship will undoubtedly feel left-handed to them (or, to continue the dancing imagery, as though they have two left feet). This is especially true of the newly converted: what is natural to them is quite unlikely to be deeply sanctified, for the simple reason that their exposure to the Word and Spirit is likely to have been minimal. All this suggests that some awkwardness is unavoidable in worship, even if the forms remained completely static. This awkwardness, then, cannot be always and everywhere immoral.
  • While Lewis’s admonition is wise and merits a hearing, it is not law. We could all imagine scenarios in which the worship of a given group of Christian is so aberrant that some changes must be introduced. Assuming here a Protestant audience, we would not long permit the practice of public prayers to Mary and the saints during the corporate worship time, even if such were the time-honored practice of the church that we just arrived at. There are obviously times that changes to the liturgy must be introduced; this also indicates that changes are not always a bad idea. Thus, the reference to the regulative principle in the title: Scripture, not Lewis, regulates the worship in Christ’s church.
  • Nonetheless, Lewis’s caution is weighty; we must seek to minimize the awkwardness, the distraction, of altered worship. As an example, Kevin argued in a recent Nick essay that new songs should not be introduced on a Sunday morning; this, in general, seems like profitable counsel. I would add that, as much as is possible, teaching and consensus should precede implementation of new forms of worship.
  • A final caution: a “successful” move toward conservatism can, at times, be akin to the newly minted Calvinist: the delight has ceased to be in Christ, but in the new thing (whether Calvinism or the hymnody). If we introduce changes, we must do so with vigilance against our churches becoming delighted in their own worship. What an evil thing to find that in our very worship, purportedly to honor God, we have transformed it into a time to delight in ourselves!
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

What music does

In my last post, I had shared a brief argument that, at least for me, undergirds my conservatism in worship, without forsaking the principle of sola scriptura. I noted in the post that it originated as a letter to a friend of mine, so I was taken aback a bit when some of the comments said they were looking forward to the next part of the discussion, for there is really no “next part.” I wrote it to begin a conversation, not as an introduction to a larger work.

That said, the person to whom I wrote did reply, and so I thought I’d go ahead a reprint here my response to that reply. A bit of context: he sent me a brief poem on the Trinity, which he acknowledged was nothing particularly artistic, and suggested the possibility that it might be used with children, to the tune of “I’ve Got a Mansion” (my example song from the previous post). Here was my reply:

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Your first example is really quite useful, because I think it highlights an important point in this whole discussion. You ask me to consider using that poem, with the tune of “I’ve Got a Mansion,” for teaching children. It’s that last part, I suspect, that is the key to this particular illustration. And, perhaps contrary to what you might expect me to say, it’s the teaching part, not the children part, that is at issue.
 
Here’s the point: music is not just a medium for making doctrine memorable. Art, real art, is decidedly inefficient at teaching propositions. Think of something like Psalm 23: if you want to teach the doctrinal truths of that poem, you could do so in a line or two. Poetry is about creating a feeling, not simply about communicating propositions. Music is like poetry in this regard. Sure, we all know that if we take truths, set them to little tunes, maybe make up some ridiculous rhymes, we can memorize them easier. I’ve undoubtedly done that while preparing for tests or the like. But that’s not why we sing. That’s not why huge swaths of Scripture is written in poetry. Good art shapes feeling, it doesn’t merely impart propositions.
 
Let me sharpen the point by changing your question. You ask, “Can a simple tune like it still be fitting to communicate excellent theological truths that are praiseworthy?” I would ask, “Can a simple tune like this elicit feeling about God that reflects the mystery and awesomeness of the Triunity?” We may still disagree about the answer to that question. But I want to phrase it that way, because I think your question is asking about something else altogether. You’re not asking whether the music is good, but merely if its useful. Does that distinction make sense?
 
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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style

This is a little intro piece that I’ve written for some friends who have asked for a basic defense of musical conservatism. It hardly gets us to full-blown conservatism, but at least offers the structure of why I think the Bible, while not addressing musical style, still gives us a standard for musical style.

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Here’s the quick outline of my argument on music; it’ll be something to get the conversation started, as we can then have specific claims to discuss. I’ll also say this: I find that these conversations are much better in person than in pixels. There are reasons for that, but given the circumstances, I am happy to do whatever you think would be helpful.

1. In any given passage of Scripture, we can ask what the passage is saying. This is basic hermeneutics.

2. However, I would also contend that every passage of Scripture not only has a what it is saying, but a how it is saying it.

3. I would further claim, then, that faithfulness to the Word of God means that our re-presentation of the text (whether in sermon or song) must accord not only with the what of the passage, but also with its how.

A quick example that I used at our church: I read to them Revelation 21–22. Then I had them sing “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop.” My point is that, even if every phrase of that song were true, the focus of the song and the triviality of its poetry and tune are such that it is utterly incompatible with the content of John’s vision of the final making right of all things in Christ. The longing created by that song simply is not the longing created by the text of Scripture. It might say what John says, but it doesn’t come close to saying it how John says it.

Another example: a pastor could preach a message that faithfully states Paul’s teaching of justification in Romans. If he does so, however, in the manner of a stand-up comic, I would say that he has not been faithful to how Paul has told us about justification, and is therefore liable to criticism. An obvious modern example of this kind of preaching is Mark Driscoll. Another obvious example would be a great many fundamentalist evangelists, even on the occasions when they did get the doctrine right.

As I say, this is the core of my argument, and it does not give direct and precise applications. Music and poetry do things; that is not disputable. It is disputable what a particular piece of music or poetry is doing. That is to say: even if you agree with the idea that Scripture has a how it is saying, it doesn’t mean we’re going to agree that any given song matches the Bible’s how.

This, to me, does not undermine the basic argument, because of the parallel notion of the what and the how of a passage. Christians do not always agree what the text is saying. Consider the diversity of positions on the end times, etc.

The fact that Christians do not always agree about what the text is saying does not allow us to conclude, however, that there is no what it is saying. Furthermore, there are disagreements about what it is saying that are significant enough to break levels of fellowship. It may be that differing eschatological views are sufficient to hinder some cooperative ministry. However, if someone denied a literal return of Christ altogether, that person would be so far from the what Scripture says as to be outside the bounds of any real Christian fellowship.

I would say that the same thing is true about the how Scripture says. Christians disagree in their reading of how a thing is said in Scripture; this does not allow us to conclude that there is no correct understanding of the how. Further, it may be that two well-intentioned, Christ-loving Christians come to sustained differences in their understanding of the how of Scripture. This is no mere triviality: it has to do with their understandings of what God is like, in a manner beyond the propositions of systematic theology. And so it may be that these Christians find their ability to cooperate strained in some way. If the differences are great enough, they may come to the conclusion that, while their propositions are largely in agreement, their views of God and his revelation are so different as to cause them to suspect that the other person is not loving God rightly at all. The claim here is that there is, in addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, such a thing as orthopathy, and that the standard for all three is the Word of God, and that disputes about the contents of each are not sufficient to undermine their existence.

Again, I have not yet made the case that a trap-set is on the other side of a line for me. What I want to establish, before we might even begin to discuss application, is that these issues of right affections have an objective standard for evaluation in the Word of God.

The Bible doesn’t tell us about our style of worship. The Bible shows us its style of worship, and we must submit to that.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Conservatism, Music, Worship