Thursday, January 30, 2014

Compartmentalize your Music

[This post is filled with generalizations. You will be able to think of exceptions to my generalizations. I'm absolutely self-aware in this regard. With that being said, let the unfair, broad generalizations begin...]

On Sunday night, the Grammy's took place. I won't report on proceedings, because that is for other websites to do. But during Macklemore's performance of the song "Same Love," 34 people got married in front of the watching world by Queen Latifa. Some of these couples were straight, most of them were gay. The song itself is making a political and moral statement. Here's just a sample:
The right wing conservatives think it's a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don't know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don't know
It was Andrew Fletcher who once said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws." In spite of the many problems and contradiction in the song, "Same Love" has become the public popular face of a quickly shifting morality in the northwestern hemisphere today. I watched the performance of this song on YouTube the next day, and I couldn't help but think that the performance was phoned-in and obnoxiously preachy. If conservatives are accused of shoving their morality "down the throat" of everybody else, liberals are now guilty of the same.

Tom Barnes (who I do not believe is a Christian of any sort), writing over at Policymic, seemed to see just how preachy the music and performance were, as well.
But just as pop music's social consciousness is becoming increasingly performed rather than felt, so too was this performance flawed. It was one of those deliberately crafted "beautiful" TV moments where the audience can see all the strings, but has to applaud because the "APPLAUSE" sign is on. 
Those 34 couples became stage props in the most absurd publicity stunting in the history of the Grammys. The performance lacked all the emotional subtly and storytelling mastery apparent in the track's music video and the lyrics themselves. Instead, it substituted these elements with show biz cheese. How was that performance supposed to support the cause? I can imagine no skeptical homophobe saying: "Yes, gay marriage should be legalized because I want to see more people mass married by pop musicians." That's because even the Grammys knows that, increasingly, people want to see their politics in their rap songs, and that they care less about genuine artistry.
Genuine artistic (that nebulous idea!) integrity, in other words, is taking a backseat, now, to message in mainstream music. You would be forgiven for reading the previous section and seeing simply a critique of an artist who is overstepping into sanctimonious territory. But then Barnes says something that everyone needs to hear about the musical climate of the day:
Either way, this is what audiences seem to want from music. They want hip-hop clean and poppy with smooth-tongued argumentative elegance. They want hopeful tracks like "Same Love" and swanky, light and playfully critical numbers like "Thrift Shop." This style won over albums that offered transcendent, visceral and artistic expressions, like Kendrick Lamar's good kid m.A.A.d. city, which is a more proper rap album when compared with The Heist, which is, at its core, a pop album. The Grammys seem to want to pretend that isn't the case.
The struggle between artistic integrity and preachy messages is not something that only exists in the rap music world, but the Christian music world, too. I get lots of flack from friends who don't like that I pick on Christian music. (This is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) If you want to hear that the state of the Christian musical union is strong, go listen to something more positive and encouraging.

But as a Christian, I listen to commentary from this writer in the midst of the rap world and I immediately think of the music that I, as a Christian, am supposed to like. The stuff I'm expected to get behind. And even if I don't like it, I'm supposed to throw my support behind it because these "artists" have a good message, or worse yet, they "mean well." For many Christians, music is as invested with weight and importance as the word preached is supposed to be. This isn't surprising, considering the vast majority of Christians listen to far more music than they do Biblical preaching.

The fact is, Christian music artists are supposed to be artists, not necessarily preachers. This doesn't mean they can't have a biblical message, but it might mean more subtlety if one is to be a good artist. I can list on a couple of hands the names of artists who self-identify as Christian who, in my opinion (that dreaded subjective word!), seem to balance art and message well. But the stuff I hear on Christian radio, when I am subjected to it, is so overt, so shallow and preachy (on the message side), so sugary and mainstream (on the artistic side) that it really has jettisoned any pretentions of artistic integrity.

Many Christians are fine with music that is artistically shallow. They don't see the harm if the lyrics are good. Most hymns are in this category. As are my CDs of the Westminster Catechisms set to music. They're an excellent way to learn biblical truths or memorize Scripture, but this is far from good art and doesn't pretend to be.

This is not what gets played on Christian radio.  The lyrics of most mainstream songs are filled with platitudes so shallow that if we tried to dive into them our brains would be spilled across the bottom of the pool. There is no way to accurately or fairly paint an entire musical scene. There is variety out there. There is really, really good stuff out there. But when I turn on that positive and encouraging station (which, again, seems to represent the mainstream of what Christians in America are listening to), most of what I hear is the Christian equivalent of Sunday night's Grammy performance.

Is there a way out? Well, I'm no artist. In many ways, I'm like an armchair quarterback who knows a bad pass when I see one but could never throw the ball, myself. But my gut tells me that Christians need to start listening to good music and stop worrying so much about the message. ("Heresy!") And they need to make sure that the pastors in their churches are feeding them well from the Scriptures. This, of course, might require that Christians not be afraid to hear something they disagree with on the radio and to sort wheat from chaff as they're listening, but they should already be doing that.

Yes, I'm calling for Christians to compartmentalize. Christians need to know where they should expect to be spiritually fed and where they should not expect to be fed. I remember years ago, Rich Mullins (Christian musician par excellence) was speaking at a concert, and here's what he said:
It's so funny being a Christian musician. It always scares me when people think so highly of Christian music, Contemporary Christian music especially. Because I kinda go, I know a lot of us, and we don't know jack about anything. Not that I don't want you to buy our records and come to our concerts. I sure do. But you should come for entertainment. If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to should read the Scriptures.
Christians today spend more time being "fed" through a medium trying to be a hybrid of "art" and "preaching" than they actually do with the God-given means for growth that's been provided. God has given the church three primary means of grace already: The Word (read and preached), Sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper), and Prayer. Creating a functional fourth category of "Christian Music" has only resulted in a theologically diluted and artistically compromised category of music that is musically and theologically mainstream in the worst possible sense of the word.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Everyone Catechizes.

My wife and I inherited a bunch of children's books from some friends a while back. In the midst of the stack was one book called Everyone Poops. The book was intended to show little kids that it isn't weird or scary to go potty. Very cute book. Also full of defecation. It isn't reading for the weak of heart or the full of stomach, but your kids will probably laugh all the way through it.

Last night I had to do a late run to Wal-Mart. As I was entering the store a woman and her two daughters were leaving. I heard them singing something together, and my heart leapt as I considered that maybe, just maybe, this woman was singing a catechism song with her daughters (I have quite an imagination!). I was, of course, disappointed, as I drew nearer to discover that this woman was not impressing on her daughters the importance of knowing the Lord, or reciting Scripture. Instead, they were singing a song by Katy Perry:
Cuz I am a champion / And you're gonna hear me roar!
I know what you're thinking: "defecation," the music of Katy Perry... this is the part where Adam is going to tie it all together. You already see the connection. Well, hang in there a bit longer.

This woman and her daughters were singing an anthem of grrrll power. An ode to personal independence. A sugary, fist-pumping trip down pop music lane. As I walked past them, I chided myself for the initial flight of fancy that gave birth to this moment of disappointment. Cynicism is an infallible defense against disappointment, and I let myself slip. I've already decided not to make the same mistake twice. But what struck me, almost immediately, was the realization that Everyone Catechizes. This woman really was catechizing her daughters.
"You shall teach [God's words] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 11:19).
I don't mean to judge this woman. I waste my time with my own children all the time, doing trivial silly things and making them experts in Star Wars lore. I am not the example I wish I was of how to educate one's children in the way of the Lord. Like most of my classmates at Seminary, I wasn't raised on formal catechisms. My point is not to say, "Be a good parent! Stop being so bad!" My point is that we need to be aware that we don't get to choose whether to catechize our kids or not.

I speak to people often who say they don't want to catechize their children with something like the Westminster Shorter Catechism because they simply didn't learn it themselves like that. Some of them say that a formal teaching method like that just isn't appealing. There are other reasons too, of course, but the point is that everyone catechizes their children. Everyone tells their children what matters most, either with their lives, or with their words, or with the songs they sing coming out of Wal-Mart. As parents, we must become more self-aware and purposeful.

The question, then, is not whether you, as a parent, will catechize your children; everyone catechizes! The question is, with what will you catechize them?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

An American Fundamentalist Reviews Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

I don’t think it’s very imaginative on a reviewer’s part for every writer coming from England to get compared to C.S. Lewis—in fact, it’s a tad embarrassing. I must confess, as an example, that to these untrained eyes and ears, N.T. Wright just sounds like C.S. Lewis. And in many ways, so does Francis Spufford. Though you might say Spufford sounds like C.S. Lewis if Lewis needed a swear jar.

His Use of Language
I am quite self-aware that the criticisms I make of this book will no doubt reinforce the negative things Spufford already suspects about fundamentalist American Christianity. I realize it, and yet I move forward with much trepidation and almost as much embarrassment as he seems, himself, to have in commending Christianity (see his introduction, quoted below).

While I was reading Spufford’s book, I tried to imagine writing a review without making reference to Spufford’s very self-conscious use of profanity throughout. Alas, it felt irresponsible to review it without warning the queasy reader that this is a bit more Wolf of Wall Street than it is My Little Pony—at least in terms of the language. Spufford uses the f-word 17 times. The s-word appears 9 times. Other less offensive, more PG-language is peppered throughout. Spufford writes here as more author than pastor, more man-on-the-street than official spokesperson. He seems to recognize the impropriety of his language in the introduction when he attempts to offer an explanation for his manner of speaking:
Why do I swear so much in what you are about to read? To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness. But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony. I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m [f---ing] embarrassed. (Kindle, Loc 102)
I have no intention of stepping on the toes of people who consider language like this to be a deal-breaker. I recognize that for many it is, and that is why I mention the language here in my review. It is helpful to remember that Mr. Spufford is not a church leader or a theologian. He’s just an average Christian Englishman who is trying to tell people that Christianity makes sense. I really don't want to come down hard on him for the language. For my own part, I am not offended by crass language. But I do think there are places where I expect it and places where I do not. I like to keep my life neat and compartmentalized like that. In that sense I sympathize and agree that a little restraint might have helped some readers to be less distracted. My guess is that this book isn't really written for a "churchy" audience.

The Book's Purpose and Strengths
In Unapologetic, Spufford is concerned with demonstrating that Christianity (as its cover says) makes "emotional sense." The book is written from an existential angle. Spufford is not doing a Greg Bahnsen here. He is not doing a William Lane Craig or a James White. He is doing something closer to what you might see in the approach of an apologist like Ravi Zacharias.

Spufford’s book meanders a bit (much like a certain author seemed to do in Mere Christianity). But he is at his strongest when he is assaulting the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the New Atheism. Numberless authors, including Alister McGrath have done this before, but Spufford’s writing has a virility and bite that is missing from the writings of other, perhaps more gentlemanly authors. I’d like to pretend that his occasional colorful language is not part of that bite, but I do suspect that it is.

Spufford talks very clearly about the human need to recognize our own guilt. Too many people spend their lives "ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame" (Kindle, Loc 507). People should stop wasting their time on denial and admit "there's some black in the mixture." I'd be happy to quote this chapter in the future. He makes good points, and I appreciated his willingness to urge people to stop making excuses or justifying themselves.

At one point, Spufford addresses the now infamous atheist bus billboard that declares "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." But Spufford beautifully (and in a rather gritty, explicit, narrative way) asks how this is a comfort to those who aren’t beautiful and healthy and young and privileged. What of the broke person whose life is in the gutter? How is this message good  news for them? asks Spufford. It is no comfort, of course. But Spufford offers a counter-proposal:
A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied (Kindle, Loc 260).
In another place, Spufford speaks critically of naturalistic evolution. His words are welcome:
The moral scandal of evolution is not that it contradicts some sweet old myth about God knitting the coats for the little lambkins: it’s that it works by, works through, would not work without, continuous suffering. Suffering is not incidental to evolution. Suffering is the method. The world wobbles onward, you might say, on a trackway paved with little bones. But that understates the issue. There is no trackway—there’s just the way the world happens to go, lurching one way, lurching the other. The whole landscape is little bones (Kindle, Loc 1130).
It is moments like these when Spufford shines brightest. He is quite aware of and drives home the reality of human pain and wants Christians and atheists alike to take seriously the reality of human suffering. He isn’t saying anything brand new that you couldn’t find elsewhere, but his language has a flair that renders him extremely quotable. You could come to this book, look around for a couple minutes, and find some fantastically quotable one-liners.

Where Spufford is weakest, however, is in his positive theological case (which is pretty serious and composes a huge chunk of the book). If you read this book for his positive theological content, you’ll be horrified if you come from a conservative background like myself. Rather than Original Sin, Spufford speaks of (again, showing an unnecessarily crass hand) HPtFtU ("Human Propensity to [F&#$] things Up"). Much like Rob Bell did in Love Wins, Spufford neglects to mention any vertical aspect to sin (at least from what I could tell). This is a big omission, of course, since sin between persons stems from a deeper relational rift between man and his creator. Addressing the HPtFtU is just putting a band-aid on an infection unless the underlying condition at the base of it all is addressed.

Some other miscellaneous complaints (none of which are minor): Spufford appears to believe in theistic evolution. He also expresses what seem like pantheistic sentiments, and at times speaks like a deist ("No matter how remote you believe God is from the day-to-day management of the cosmos—and for me He’s pretty damn remote…" Loc. 1082) and even as a fideist. He says Christians need to move beyond worrying about sexual sin. "Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in lists of forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods" (Kindle, Loc 2215). In one place he says that the book of Genesis is "no good to us as history, as almost all Christians know (except for some really stubborn Americans)" (Loc 1243 and footnote).

Spufford also rejects the idea of hell. He is a universalist. In addition to holding to this highly aberrant theology, he has the temerity to think that his rather novel form of Christianity is in the majority or that he speaks for the average Christian. An example of his rhetoric:
Hell is still popular...but not with actual Christians, any more. Crazy avant-gardists that we are, we went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago. The majority of us have not believed in it for several generations. It isn’t because we’re wimpy modernizers who can’t stomach the more scaly and brimstone-rich aspects of our inheritance. It’s because, from the beginning, hell conflicted with much more basic aspects of the religion, and our collective understanding finally caught up with the fact. Those posters you occasionally see on buses and rail platforms threatening you with unquenchable fire come from a tiny faction of headbangers. We don’t like them either. (I myself would rather have the atheist bus any day.) I promise this is really true. No more hell! It’s official!
He speaks of hell as more a form of social control than a truth about God. Of course, I disagree with him quite strongly, and he gives no Scriptural support for his position except for some conveniently vague references to God's love. It is very tempting to interact with Spufford on this point. Time permitting, I may do that eventually.

Spufford’s mysticism and spirituality is off-putting to my own conservative Presbyterian sensibilities. At one point early in the book he goes on and on about meditating in the quiet of the church building and sensing one’s smallness in the scale of things. I found that part of the book about as exciting as listening to someone tell me about their dream they had last night. All this summary is to say, the book is not without its shortcomings, and the shortcomings aren’t insignificant.

After reading the first two chapters of the book, I had originally intended to write an extremely positive review with some cautions about language and about slightly unorthodox ways of speaking. I loved what he was doing. I even found a charm in his irreverence and found myself envying his freedom in speech and his way with words. He is funny where one should be funny, cutting where a good cut is needed, and deadly serious about the pains and sufferings in this life where many orthodox writers seem to gloss things over just a bit.

But Mr. Spufford began to lose me in the third and following chapters. The book seemed to veer from arguing that Christianity "makes emotional sense" contra the new atheists to arguing much like other contemporary authors that Christianity has evolved and transformed into something much more "stomache-able" now than it used to be. There is much to interact with in this book, and because a new semester of school is just around the corner, I haven't the time to interact with it in detail. I grew more and more disappointed with the book as it went on, from a theological perspective.

I had thought this would be a fresh, basically orthodox apologetic for the Christian faith. Instead, the book ends up being just another recurrence of the old liberalism with a very nice coat of paint. If this had been released four years ago it would fit in with other writings from the Emergent wing of evangelicalism, but at this point even that fad has faded into disinterest. I have no doubt that Mr. Spufford's writings may very well reflect the direction of postmodern British Anglicanism, but thankfully global Anglicanism appears to be pushing back the other way. My recommendation is, come for the first two chapters. Enjoy the meat, spit out the bones, but don't finish the book unless you just absolutely yearn for closure.

In the end, a discerning reader could find much here to appreciate. I really have my misgivings about this book as a positive apologetic or evangelistic tool, however. Mark Dever, in his book The Deliberate Church, speaking of evangelism, says that "what you win them with is what you win them to." In that sense, I have real misgivings about pastors recommending this book to their people. If we take the teachings of the Bible seriously, then we do not want the vision of Christianity that Spufford is presenting to win the day. Again, a massive amount of discernment and critical appraisal could go a long way to helping someone to benefit from Unapologetic, but for the most part, Christians and unbelievers alike would do well to stay away.