Friday, August 20, 2010

Sing a new song (Sunday Reflections for August 22, 2010)

This month we are using a pop song in our Sunday liturgy to provide another source of reflection, in addition to the regular scripture readings. Hearing this, a friend of mine commented on Facebook that she has come to appreciate secular music as much as religious songs as a source of spiritual support. “I'm enjoying the blurring of secular and sacred music,” she wrote. “If the message is inspirational, what does it matter who recorded it?”

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the difficulty of contemporary worship. Typically such efforts have involved taking traditional religious ideas (though expressed in modern language) and setting them to more contemporary sounding music. The fit, however, is rarely comfortable and often aesthetically mediocre.

Thus far, from comments and even attendance, this worship experiment has been well received. So while admittedly not quite knowing what I was doing, this experience has made me wonder more about why the church tries to add a contemporary veneer to its traditional spiritual life. Why do we try to create contemporary sounding church music rather than just use actual contemporary music instead?

Well, this question gets a bit complicated since you can approach it from several angles. For one thing, most pop music does not lend itself to sing-a-long. There are a few exceptions (Queen’s “We Will Rock You” comes to mind, as sports fans the world over know) but most of it is written as performance music, often by a solo voice. Fans may know a song’s lyrics but even when a musician encourages a concert audience to join in, the singing is usually rather pathetic even if enthusiastic.

Apart from this practical difficulty, I think the use of popular music in worship raises another more fundamental question. It’s a question that has been hanging over the church for several centuries, since the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. Namely, how does the church view and relate to secular culture? It’s a question the church has been alternately avoiding and wrestling with throughout this period but without any conclusion.

This is a long story, one that really starts all the way back with Jesus. It comes out of the differences of opinion within the church from the start about what Jesus was up to and what his followers should be doing after his death.

Modern New Testament scholarship is pretty well agreed that Jesus probably expected some dramatic apocalyptic event to occur in his life time—a “Day of the Lord,” if you will. Hence, Jesus talked about “the kingdom” being right around the corner and of the need to be ready at a moment’s notice for the “king’s” return. Of course, it didn’t happen. After his death, the early church then decided Jesus was referring to his own return and expected that at any moment, but that didn’t happen either.

It’s easy to see this shift in the later New Testament writings (both gospels and epistles). There is a growing concern with making the church organizationally sustainable for the long haul. The result is an accepted canon of scripture, worship practice, and ordained leadership. Yet this still begged the question of just what the church should be doing. Was it still in a hurry up and wait mode? If so, how long would the wait be? If not, then what was the church’s purpose?

The answer ended up being handed to it by none other than the Roman Emperor Constantine. For reasons that are still not entirely clear—and after years of on-again, off-again persecution—Constantine decided to make Christianity the new state religion of the empire. Suddenly the church had a dramatically different role to play, one for which it really was not prepared. Nor was it a role found in Jesus’ teachings. Regardless, the bishops jumped at the opportunity, concluding this must be what God wants and the church as we know it was born.

Ironically, the empire eventually collapsed but the church survived, carrying on many of the basic social functions the empire’s bureaucracy used to perform. The pope easily slid onto the emperor’s throne and Christendom replaced the empire as the organizational structure for much of Europe. For a thousand years church and society were virtually one and the same.

Then with the Renaissance and Reformation, Christendom began to crumble. The church split, of course, but the rise of commerce and the nation-state also carved out ever-larger portions of society independent of the church’s influence. That trend has continued to the present day. (An interesting physical representation of the decline of church power is seen in the shrinking of papal ruled territory from the Holy Roman Empire, to the Italian Papal States, to the Vatican acreage tucked inside the city of Rome.)

Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox—has never figured out what to make of modern society and culture. At times it has acted as if it is all a disaster and we just need to get back to Christendom again. By now, however, that prospect seems preposterous to even the most die-hard traditionalist. One response is to resume the waiting game for Jesus’ return. Off and on, fundamentalists have liked predicting this, usually to be preceded by some catastrophic apocalypse. Most of Christianity, however, has kept going back and forth between wanting to fight modern culture or embrace it.

And the reason for this confusion, as I’ve said, is the church’s uncertainty from the start about its mission. Is the church supposed to be getting ready to abandon this world for a new and better one that God will somehow provide? Or is it working to transform this world into the new and better one envisioned by Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him?

Clearly, I am in the latter camp. The other, to me, is now pure fantasy and the longer the church clings to it the more bizarre it looks and acts and the more irrelevant it is to real life. This life and this world is what we have been given and what we have to work with. Hunkering down in the church like it’s a bomb shelter is just a waste.

Jan Wildens "Landscape with Christ and Disciples on the Road to Emmaus"
Coming to this conclusion, it seems to me that the church and Christians individually need to be fully engaged with the world in whatever way we can, doing all we can to make it a better place. We need to be recognizing and pointing out to everyone the world’s inherent sacredness and value, including that of all the people living in it. We need to be celebrating this world as the beautiful and glorious gift that it is. And we need to be partnering with anyone who shares this commitment, whatever their religious or philosophical label.

Jesus came announcing the coming of God’s kingdom—not the coming of the church. The church is one instrument for bringing that about but we have to admit it’s had a pretty spotty record in that regard over the years. To avoid simply becoming absurd and irrelevant, the church needs to recognize what has always been true, that the Spirit blows wherever it wills. God’s transforming power can and does work anywhere, through anyone, and God’s voice can be heard in anyplace—even, and perhaps especially today, in a song on the radio.

1 comment:

David Mc said...

Sorry about the poor link and misplaced comments above. Here's a better link.