Monday, September 29, 2008


Sure, I'm no busier than anyone else. Same number of hours in a day, same need to balance complementary and conflicting interests, same challenges when deciding do I do this or that other thing? So, why is my office so messy, so full of unfinished projects, so blatantly the space of a man whose epitaph will read: "well, he tried" ?

During a sabbatical four years ago, reading in the Dictionary of National Biography (England), I came across this, regarding one Charles King, born in Bury St. Edmonds, 1687, died in London, 1748. He was an organist, composer, and vicar-choral at St. Paul's Cathedral. That is to say, he was a church musician. This appraisal was offered by one Hawkins: "King's inferiority was due rather to indolence than want of ability." It's funny - and it stings - because it's true.

Yesterday began the 2008-09 series of the College Church Concert Series. In homage to French organist composer Olivier Messiaen, organist Carolyn Shuster Fournier played a mostly French program including Messiaen's L'Ascension, and a work commissioned by Madame Fournier for the Messiaen centenary, Ubi caritas for organ, boy choir, and women's chorus, by Jacques Charpertier. This was the first performance in English, the first in the U.S.

The women who assembled to sing this, all from College Church, sang beautifully a very difficult piece. Irregular rhythms, extensive range, unpredictable intervals - this is not normal church music. Its unifying theme - textually and musically - is the lovely "ubi caritas" chant probably best known through the work of Maurice Duruflé. Again I came up against this truth: because of my indolence and undisciplined busyness, the women walked into the program under-prepared. Not unready to sing: they sang beautifully, and the audience thought it was magnificent (it was!) and could not guess that what they heard was the product of only 2 group rehearsals. It was not false modesty that deflected compliments on my work with the group: this success was all to their credit!

I rather like others succeeding, and me having little to do with their success.

Still, something's gotta give. The scramble, the hanging on by my fingernails, the dread when I walk into the paper flurry that is my office - The unfinished projects, the nascent brainstorms, the undared dreams - The receding goal of the high calling, the lapsed and diminishing musicianship, the waiting for the other shoe to drop.

On the other hand: wow! The people of College Church sang their hearts out all day yesterday. The chancel choir and the bell choir served with special distinction in the morning. And I am happy to say that if I am only a conduit for this sort of thing to happen, it is enough.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, September 18, 2008

If you miss this Rapture

Who should not read Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready: Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture?
The author uses irregular, non-gratuitous use of some vulgar language. If this offends, just be forewarned. Even more alarming to some evangelical readers will be the rough vulgar language used by some of the evangelical subjects of his interviews. I don't travel much in the pop sub-culture described in this book ... but nor do I interact much with self-professed evangelicals with salty language. Just be aware, it's in here.
I imagine each chapter will have its detractors, people who say "yeah, but ..." or who are just plain offended by the critique of their pet dimension of this parallel universe.
If one is simply dismissive of an evaluation of our world by one who is admittedly an outsider, this will not be a pleasant read.

Who should read the book?
Anyone who wants to take a look at who evangelicals appear to be will appreciate and learn from Daniel Radosh. Read his rationale for writing, and as you read, look for the ways he affirms aspects of the sub-culture. He is not making fun of evangelicals - well, OK, so he really only makes fun of or takes on evangelicals who may appear extreme even to other evangelicals. ("I had a moment of quiet despair. All my effortsto seek out the darkest corners of this parallel universe had finally brought me to geocentricism, only to find out that even geocentrists insist on distinguishing themselves from those other, really crazy geocentrists." p.294, author's emphasis) He is uniformly good-natured, and in several cases he observes how secular pop culture could integrate and accept Christian contributions.

The book does not address worship. This is important to keep in mind. It seems to me that underlying Radosh's book is a presumed or nascent theology of entertainment. It would be interesting to explore that with readers.

Ultimately, he expresses this hope: "I loved American pop culture going into this project, and for the most part I still do. But the best aspects of Christian culture - the unabashed celebration of the transcendent, the challenge to crass materialism, the commitment to personal responsibility - helped me see more clearly what is too often lacking in secular entertainment and media. Jesus's radical message of brotherhood, selflessness, and dignity may be just the antidote to our contemoporary ethos of shamelessness and overindulgence.
"Evangelicalism and pop culture are two quintessentially American innovations that have never outgrown their worst impulses. Both James Dobson and Paris Hilton still exist. As our alternate universes begin to merge, we can either brace for an explosion, or we can open ourselves to the possibility that the new integrated universe will be better, richer, and more humane for everyone. And at least as much fun." (308)

I'll be cautious about recommending this book, but I have already begun to. I have yet to explore the corrolary website, on which the author has posted photos, video, and interviews that comprised his research:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rapture, in progress

Update on "Rapture Ready" - I'm nearing the end, and find there are several chapters on music. By and large Radosh is less dismissive of the music and musicians he encounters, though still there is a healthy critique. Interestingly (tellingly?) it appears that the less "like" evangelicals his interviewees are, the more open he is to what they bring to the discussion. And he obviously likes the popular music that is being imitated and/or created; which means both that he is a bit warmer to this subject and that he is critical in a medim-specific way.

Reading over the weekend, some perspective started to coalesce: 1) It is easy for me to make fun of this evangelical sub-culture, and sometimes difficult to love those who do embrace or thrive or wallow in it. To the degree that this means I am dismissive or uncaring about those who are genuinely my brothers and sisters in Christ, this is something I need to confess, repent of, and put behind me. 2) Regardless of how spot-on I think Radosh's observations may be, there is still a spiritual reality at play. "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14) For example, I understand that there are genuinely offensive ways we communicate the gospel. Radosh exposes all kinds of apparent and (I'm sorry to say, probably real) anti-Semitism in the church. But he cannot understand the exclusive claims of Christ, nor how that necessarily shapes our approach to all other religions. Sure, we too easily dismiss people's experience, feelings, values, etc. But even when we get all that "right," we are still operating from a world-view that believes "there is salvation in no other name ..." The cross will always be a stumbling block. The lesson from "Rapture Ready" is to make sure we are not putting up the wrong stumbling blocks, and so obscuring the only important one.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rapture Ready

I have just begun reading Rapture Ready! (Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture). The book was recommended by Larry Eskridge during his seminar appearance at Calvin College this summer. Larry called it the best look at the topic by an outsider. The snob in me suggests that if it is the best "by an outsider" it is probably the best, period.

So, I've just begun, and it is going to be difficult to not read straight through. It will probably push other, arguably more important reading, aside for the week. Author Daniel Radosh is Jewish ("My own Judaism is neither orthodox nor conservative - in either the denominational or the colloquial senses of the words ..." p. 16). Over the course of a year he looked in on the evangelical sub culture, and each chapter addresses a single aspect of it.

I learned this morning that this is a book I cannot read in a coffee shop. I don't know, it's just a bit embarrassing to sit alone, laughing out loud or trying not to. Radosh nails the ridiculous aspects, but he is not (so far, at least) mean-spirited. It's a good read along the lines of A. J. Jacobs The Know It All.

So, today after reading in a coffee shop and trying not to laugh out loud, it occurred to me: the very things that are easiest for us insiders to ridicule (largely the attempt to be, in Ken Myers' elegant critique: "of the world but not in it") often stops short of a careful critique of music, including music in worship. We find it easy to scoff at Jesus junk jewelry, knock-off/rip-off T-shirt slogans, Christian fitness regimens, and on and on ... but somehow don't seem to worry that we not only copy but embrace any and all kinds of popluar music?

This will bear reflection, and perhaps become a talking point in conversations about the role of popluar music in serious Christian worship.

Some great quotes ... oh I have the feeling there will be many in this book:
Radosh cites the T-shirt slogan "Modest is the hottest." "The tangled rationale of that last one - we can persuade girls to dress in a way that does not attract sexual attention by telling them that doing so will attract sexual attention, especially if they wear this form-fitting shirt - begins to hint at the tension in bending Christian messages to pop-culture forms." (12) [I had to go to the LarkNews site to make sure this wasn't one of their parody T's. Nope. Sadly, it is hard for satirists to stay ahead of real life in this realm.]

"Apparently there is an insatiable demand for the timeless message of the gospel slapped onto anything made out of plastic." (13)

Well, you get the drift, and I could probably go page to page with funny, insightful, really sad observations when you stop to think about it. I will just end this post with this, upon seeing, at a Christian retail convention, the Smiling Cross: "This was, as it sounds, an anthropomorphic cross with its horizontal beam bent up into a cheery smile. Apparently the traditional symbol of Christ's agonizing death by torture was just too depressing. For the first time, I had the experience of seeing devout Christians embrace something that I, as a non-Christian, found sacreligious. It wouldn't be the last." (12) Nor are you alone, Mr. Radosh.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Faith and Melody

Faith and Melody. That sounds like "two sisters I went to school with"!

But today I am reflecting on the question of a composer's personal faith as a requirement for using her/his tune to sing sacred text. That is, may we use the musical gifts of a non-regenerate person to set the words of scripture, prayer, and hymn, and then use the resultant song in gathered worship?

I am posing the question strictly, here, in terms of the melody. When the composer of a tune is known, and the nature of that composer's faith is known (or, cautiously, inferred from his/her life story), does it matter in any spiritual or moral sense? We are always pleased to claim J. S. Bach as the church musician par excellence, but we rarely sing his melodies. Arthur Sullivan may give us pause, but his tunes are still in wide use in Christian hymnals. Last week I mentioned Ralph Vaughan Williams's beloved tune SINE NOMINE - he who was a great friend of church music and hymn lovers, but no great friend of the gospel. Does it matter?

Sometimes people get bogged down in the attribution of a hymn tune. I was surprised to find in Hymns for the Living Church a tune by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Yes, that Jean Jacques Rousseau. When I first used it, someone graciously approached me and asked if that was really "OK" to use. Silly me for not anticipating the question. But it was not a silly question. It's just a question that I wonder, how far do we want to pursue that?

In fact, my objection to the use of that particular tune (identified as GREENVILLE in our hymnal) is not its composer, but the faint impression that it gives of "Go Tell Aunt Rhody."

Of course, many of our hymn tunes are anonymous and/or folk tunes; we don't know who "wrote" them. This gets us off the hook on this question. As for composer attribution and the presence or absence of faith, for me it tends to boil down to the quality/usefulness of the tune itself. In this I refer to Alice Parker (who would, I imagine, be baffled by the question) not because she has addressed this question but because of what she has to say wisely about the importance of melody.

To summarize, poorly, it comes down to this: a melody has a life of its own, and must be recognized, embraced, and sung on its own merit. It either fits the words set to it, or it does not. A good fit is worth singing, a poor fit should be re-considered. The source of a melody is in any real sense inconsequential. I'm no composer, but I believe many composers will say that a melody "came to them" (even if they labored over the details of getting it right). I feel some freedom to match excellent words with the best tune available, regardless of the source.

Now, pastorally? There can be another complication. If I am going to use tune (and give appropriate credit) written by someone whose faith and life are known to be antithetical to the Christian faith - especially if there is a strong likelihood that some will connect those dots ... As a matter of avoiding offense, I will decline to use the tune. I will probably be saddened by it, but I think I know my greater duty there.

And one more comment, on a humorous note: Recently I had to deal with another side of this guilt-by-association, ad hominem, hymn tune decision. We wanted to use a classic text in our evening service, but with a less formal tune. Due to the more folk nature of the service, I turned (as is my custom) to some early American tunes. Having found a pretty good match (if I may say so myself), we then faced the question: "Do we name the tune in print?" We chose not to. So we set the great hymn "O Word of God Incarnate" to the Southern Harmony (1835) tune ... ROMISH LADY!