Friday, June 10, 2011

How Not to

The Gospel Coalition is sort of the go-to page for the "young, restless, Reformed" crowd. Lots to read and hear there, and much, much to admire; to learn from; to stir the heart. The assembled blogsters alone make it a site worth bookmarking. TGC wants the church and the world to know about Jesus, as clearly, as uncomplicatedly, as free of stumbling blocks, as humanly and ecclesiastically possible. So, today's post. And so, the principles so clearly articulated by author Jonathan Leeman.

Asked by a church member whether to start a church for the motorcycling crowd, Leeman provides a good, clear, I think biblical response. I hope people read it.

My only response, and my purpose for thinking about it today, is to ask the question that is sort of becoming my project - "Yes, but . . . ?" If Leeman's response is helpful for "How Not to Grow a Healthy Church," are we willing to ask: "Yes, but are we asking the same questions regarding the music in our services?" Can we resist the "drift" Leeman describes, by cultivating musical "redwoods not rosebushes"? Leeman asks:
"Which would you prefer—a bush that blooms tomorrow and wilts the next day, or the majesty that rises skyward over a generation? Take your pick." And all I'm asking is - are we asking this question about music, too? That's my project.

And lest you think this means some one thing, well, stay tuned! But it does mean something, not anything.

And, by the way, if the redwood analogy seems remote, let me recommend a book that will expand your vista: The Wild Trees.As corollary reading, peruse the Bible talk about trees. Then ask the question with me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Song, Old World

Last week I read through Calvin Stapert's A New Song for an Old World

The premise(s) are not new: 1 - the church of today will do well to stay in touch with the early fathers, and learn from their wisdom; 2 - the world of today is much like the world of the first few centuries AD, and we do well to see how our forebears navigated in that world.

I picked up the book (finally) because it seemed to be a good introduction to a field that I expect to read extensively in, for a master's thesis. (On that, more as it develops, and over the next couple of years!)

Anticipating the heart of my nascent thesis - viz., that in considering the music of the church we tend to reject some wisdom from our ancestors, and to hold on to some perspectives from anti-Christian philosophers - this book looks at the writings of the immediately post-apostolic church in regard to music in worship, music in the home, and music's role in shaping character. Stapert draws out some consistent and helpful themes, while carefully (as a good academic!) suggesting that the main thing is to not ignore these voices in our modern decision-making.

Naturally, given my personality and my self-proclaimed position as "poster boy for traditional worship," there is much here that I would like to champion. Interestingly, it has started to have its effect in a more personal way than I anticipated. Our fathers critiqued the music of pagan entertainment cut pretty close to home, and I realize that as often as not when I am in "mindless music mode" - cycling, working in the yard, showering, etc. - the music in my head is nearly always . . . well, let's just say, it is not lofty, exalted, nor sacred. Don't get me wrong, it's not lewd or offensive either. But the point that gets to my heart is: where are the psalms and hymns hidden in my heart?

Well, a lot to think about, and a hard hard heart to be plowed. As for the academic purpose for this reading, it has presented me with a good start at the theological primary sources for my academic project. Meanwhile, perhaps the unexpected work on a more important, more personal project, will begin to have its way in me.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

single syllables

Today I enjoyed the singing of God's people in the church my Karen and I are attending during my sabbatical. Well, we enjoy this singing every Sunday. Today I had a fresh appreciation for it, with a little bit of The Anthologist rattling in the back of my ear:
Do you notice those one-syllable words? The Elizabethans really understood short words. Each one-syllable word becomes a heavy blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line. . . Gascoigne said that to write a delectable poem you must "thrust as few words of many syllables into your verse as may be." The more monosyllables, the better, he said.
When I read this earlier this weekend, I thought of hymns, old and new. But mostly new. I have to say that some of the new hymn writing I admire is flawed by using too many polysyllabic words. Good words; words with meaning and richness. But in the end, perhaps words that get in the way of our singing, that don't melt in our ears and tongues and hearts and souls.

Yes, I have to say that a certain personal favorite (here unnamed) gets hung up here. While another, Timothy Dudley-Smith, so often triumphs with single syllables. This morning we sang Bob Kauflin's "O Great God" and I think the only word of 3-syllables is "occupy;" by and large this very good little hymn passes the single-syllable test. One may also compare most classic hymns with (for example) some very fine hymns from the pen of the late James M. Boice. Great ideas, solid concepts, glorious themes. But, to paraphrase the emperor in "Amadeus" - "too many syllables."

And it makes me wonder: will this be a predictor of the long-term success/use of a hymn?

C. S. Lewis famously called hymns "third rate poetry set to fourth rate music." Don't go to Lewis for encouragement about church music. But I take issue with the great man. Hymn poetry is the most disciplined form I can imagine. And when it's good it is very, very good. (And to be fair, when it is bad, it is horrid.) This notion of the value of single syllable words just may be another aspect of my hymn selection matrix; I think we're on to something.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Sabbatical - I thought I'd be writing more. Full time grad school was more intense than I expected. Since the semester ended, I've been alternating between relaxing and panic about the remaining weeks. Trying to redeem the time. Reading some things that I wanted to get to during sabbatical.

And reading some surprises, too. Like Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, on loan from my sister. I'm just past midway, and my jury is still out on whether it is to be recommended. But this passage, read last night (Wednesday night), really speaks to my present sabbatical condition:

Thursday is the day of fear. On Monday you're in great shape because you've got the whole week. Then Tuesday, still pretty good, still at the beginning more or less. Then Wednesday, and you're poised, and you can accomplish much if you just apply yourself vigorously and catch up. And then suddenly, you're driving under that huge tattered banner, with that T and that H and that U and that frightening R and the appalling S - THURSDAY - and you slide down the steep slope toward the clacking shredder blades that wait on Sunday afternoon. Another whole week of your one life. (or, in the present case, your sabbatical)

Well, it's not so bad as that, but I do get the Thursday shakes, and the countdown will soon change from "weeks" to "days." I'm enjoying a lot of reading. The Anthologist is my bedtime read. Earlier this week I finished Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I am working through some of Eugene Peterson's newer books, and Calvin Stapert, A New Song for an Old World. An introduction to western musical aesthetics will surely be started and well underway before next Thursday's "clacking shredder blades."