Monday, August 1, 2016

Case in Point

 “How does this church’s worship shape her people’s ethical wisdom?”

I hd not yet read Samuel Wells, Improvisation, when on July 10 I posted a Facebook question following a series of national outrages. In the preceding days police officers in Baton Rouge, LA, had shot and killed a black man on the street. Three days later, on July 8, five police officers were shot by a sniper during a legal Dallas, TX, protest. (As we now know, the month would only get worse, and those of us of a certain age began to feel like it was 1968 again.) Preparing to head out to church, I stopped long enough to ask others:

To my church-going FB friends: If you're willing, would you answer the following questions? ( if you wish to remain anonymous feel free to answer privately through FB Messenger)
* Especially this Sunday - did your church read or sing a Psalm?
* This Sunday - were the shooting events of this week mentioned? In what context?
* Were the shooting events of this week prayed for publicly? Was that typical of your church's practice, or unusual?
* Were people, peoples, communities related to this week's shooting events prayed for by name?
Just curious, as I myself head out to church this morning.

The responses were interesting, even if predictable. To summarize:
·         Churches in which the Psalms are regularly read or sung incorporated a psalm(s) in the service that morning. In some cases, the Psalm of the Day fit very aptly into the need of the day. In others, a Psalm was selected for the occasion.
·         Some churches that do not regularly read, sing, or pray from the Psalms, thought it important to incorporate an appropriate psalm that morning.
·         Others, in which the Psalms do not play a regular part of worship, did not go to the Psalms on July 10.
·         There did not seem to be a direct correlation between the presence of a Psalm in the service, and the more personal use of victims’ names in congregational prayer.
·         In some services, only the names of the police officers were spoken, in fewer the names of the other victims of the week.

If you go Here you may be able to scroll down to my July 10, 2016 post to read the responses.

I was just interested in what experiences my friends were having that morning in church. Since then, having read Improvisation, and thinking about how worship shapes the church’s ethics, I simply wish to cite this as a case in point. I am not going to take time to critique or praise any particular church or response.

Apropos Samuel Wells’ argument (I hope I making the correct application of this point in his book), every church had a chance on July 10 to help her people shape a Christian response to this summer’s simmering tensions. Our choices of whom to pray for, whose names to mention in prayer, and how to pray for our nation, speaks to all who listen and are learning to pray. More than learning to pray, we are learning how to respond. Our hearts are being shaped.

I was relieved to hear the associate pastor at my church pray beautifully, meaningfully, and personally along these lines. He prayed for the victims’ families, and spoke the name Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge) as well as all five Dallas policemen. He prayed for justice. If I have one critique of this prayer, it is that the pastor prayed for the church’s role in national healing, but not for this church’s role in national or local matters.

Since this church does not regularly sing, read, or pray the Psalms, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My hypothesis is that a regular recitation of the Psalms—which appears to have been normal in the New Testament, and has been practiced in Christian worship in every generation since—will naturally tune our hearts to pray for, and thus identify with the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and outcast; to pray and thus stand against unjust power and powers; and to see God’s hand and understand God’s heart in the affairs of nations. Hearing the voice of God in the Psalms keeps these matters from seeming political in church. Singing and Praying and Reciting the Psalms together ought to provide bridges for civil discourse about political differences. The Psalms ought to remind us that our hope and hopes are not in the kingdoms of this world, but in the Kingdom of God.

In short, the Psalms ought to not only teach us to pray and praise God, but to live God’s life in the world.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Singing in the Right Act

My summer professional reading has been a mixed bag of personal curiosity, prep for another year of teaching, and maintaining my connection to the issues of music in the church. (And yes, there is always a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram!)

For several years I’ve wanted to read Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004). For odd personal reasons, I feel a little awkward about reading it now. Still, I’m glad I did because—perhaps surprisingly—there is actually quite a bit of intersection in that Venn diagram.

For one thing, Wells’ thesis is that Christian ethics arise from the disciplines and practices of Christian living. So that, as he says, we act in any moment in character shaped by those disciplines and practices; and we may not realize we have been in a “crisis” until we are already through it, because our actions were “normal.” And in this regard Wells highlights the role of gathered worship as a primary shaper of Christian ethics.

Now, I have believed and taught for years that worship is the primary vehicle for Christian maturity. So this argument seems quite natural to me. And it helps me get some perspective on current political matters. Specifically the question: How can so-called “evangelicals” appear to support a candidate for the office of U. S. President whose words, actions, and personal history are so contrary to evangelical convictions? One reason—in my view, perhaps the greatest reason—is that evangelical worship is so pallid, and so disconnected from life in the world. Many are simply not making the connection between their pietistic convictions and political matters. They are happy to be happy in Jesus, and please just let them pursue worldly power like the world does.

Don’t think our worship shapes the way we are in the world? Well, then maybe our worship isn’t what you think it is.

The other “aha!” thought that drives through the book is the analogy of where the Church is in the great drama of redemption. Following von Balthasar, Vanhoozer, and Wright, Wells describes a five-act drama: I - Creation, II - Israel, III - Jesus, IV - Church, and V - Eschaton (last things). Acts I–III are written; we have the script(ures), full of stories, songs, examples, plot and character development, and, yes, some talky sections of exposition, didactics, and polemics. (Here I am a bit off-book from Wells; you get the idea.) Act V is written and we are waiting for the curtain to come up on it. Meanwhile we are in Act IV.

But Act IV isn’t written. It is improvised. If we are to improvise well, we will work from what has already been played out (Acts I–III), rehearse, explore, and play in a community that is rooted in the words and actions of the previous acts.

We err when we forget what Act we are in. We err when we mistake the earlier Acts as the verbatim playbook for our Act(ions). We do not want to act out of character, and we also do not want to act as if Act V is dependent upon us.

I’m not doing justice to the argument of Improvisation, but bear with me. Read the book if the analogy interests you, or if you are just generally interested in ethics, or in dramatic improvisation!

But I was struck by the notion of acting (singing, speaking, behaving, worshiping) without being mindful that we are in Act IV. Isn’t some of our worship “premature” in the sense that it suggests that all the promises of our future (Act V) are already fulfilled now? In the sense that we may get stuck on the denouement of Act III and fail to act out the implications of the Gospel in our Act? In the sense that being creationists (for those who still are) we nevertheless fail to integrate the themes of Act I into our worship, our life together, our ethical responses in our own day? In the sense that we still long for the blessings of Act II promises that were already fulfilled in Act III?

In this way, this book on Ethics has provided me another way to think about my own worship, my own need for worship and a worshiping community, and the responsibilities of planning and leading worship for the good of the church, for  the good of the world, and as good “art” as well.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Music or Sound?

There’s an interesting court case in progress. Is the iconic motif of  “Stairway to Heaven” by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) a copy of another song? Apparently “Taurus” was sung by the group Spirit in a number of concerts opening for Led Zeppelin. This article from The Guardian is a good enough explanation of the issue, with some audio for perspective.

The case is likely to be settled soon, and in a sense while I understand the issues (well enough) it doesn’t really matter to me how it turns out.

But today I read this Slate interview with a USC Law prof who writes about musical plagiarism issues. It’s interesting throughout. He wants to make a distinction between “music” and “sound.” At issue in the “Stairway to Heaven” case is a chord progression that has been in use for centuries. (For more on that sort of thing, read Alex Ross, “Chacona, Lamento” – oh heck, just read as much Alex Ross as you can.) If I may be simplistic: the issue is whether one can copyright a chord progression.

So, that’s the background. What leapt out at me this morning was this:
These cases [musical plagiarism] are about musical works. And popular music today tend [sic] to have very little original musical expression. It’s typically by musicians who really don’t understand music – they may understand sound, or in a crude way how you put something together. But they don’t understand intellectually how it’s constructed, the relationship between the pitches you’re working with. If you don’t understand that, you can’t be very original. So popular musicians build songs using sonic blocks.

Bold statement? Unfair criticism? Worth considering more deeply? Cranky?

If the observation is fair, it goes a long way to helping me identify why so much music fails to connect with me. And the issue is exacerbated in music in the church, which is already (generally) derivative; are we rehashing poorly conceived sound blocks rather than being inspired by thoughtful musical ideas?

If the observation is fair, it goes a long way to helping me understand why so many churches are content to hire “worship leaders” (i.e song-leaders) with minimal musical knowledge. Help me understand the college student who aspires to be a worship leader but doesn’t want to actually study music.

Do I think the observation is fair? I’ll have to think about it more; I’ll have to consider how far I can say I “understand intellectually how [music is]constructed, the relationship between the pitches,” etc. I will say this: I love me some good melody, supported by interesting harmony, and that’s a combination I miss in much new music.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to master some chords on my ukulele. I’ve got a party to go to tonight, and maybe a cute chick will want to hear “Stairway to Heaven.”