Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Worshiping Trinity

Worshiping Trinity: Coming back to the heart of worship
Robin Parry (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005)

The title came to my attention when I was casting about for a term paper topic in the fall semester seminar on the Trinity. It’s not exactly a theological work, per se, though Robin Parry is a theologian and in Worshiping Trinity he is urging the recovery and practice of Trinitarian commitments and vocabulary in Christian worship. Okay, so it is a theological work in the sense that worship is a theological exercise, in the sense that it is problematic when public worship is not considered as an expression of theology, and in the sense that too often worship leaders (musicians and preachers) do not think that all the service components must meet the same theological scrutiny as the sermon. Parry is balanced, clear, and orthodox. He appropriately draws on sources as diverse as the Church Fathers and modern worship songwriters, on Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley and the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner.

I found Parry’s tone distracting. I’m not sure how much of that is because he is English (with that distinct, droll, ironical humor) and how much that he is Charismatic (with a stereotypical ambivalence about theology). He is a PhD in theology, gaining his degree under Gordon Wenham (University of Gloucestershire) – so, no theological lightweight. But as he writes about worship and the Trinity, he is sometimes wacky; not about worship or the Trinity, but still in a distracting way, for my taste. I love me some English humor and self-effacement, but I think the informal way of doing theology in this book would be just as effective without chapter titles such as the first: “Theology and Worship up a Tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G.” Or with asides like this one: “the examples we have examined so far are what we could call ‘fruitcake’ songs. I don’t mean that they were written by people who are or were fruitcakes! I mean that . . . “ (129, emphasis added). Or this particularly distracting: “There have been occasions when we shy away from using the ‘F-word’ (Father) in worship.” (105) Really?! I know it’s a quibble, and the book is so fine in so many ways. Maybe I’m sensitive to it because I have been in a context where some feel that the way to de-formalize a traditional service is to tell jokes. This book would have been as acceptably informal without such distractions.

Grumbling aside, Parry has 

  • offered a thorough introduction to the theology of the Trinity, 
  • situated it in the church’s public worship, 
  • identified its absence across Protestant practices of worship (formal Anglican as well as his own charismatic service), 
  • bridged history and ecclesiologies to provide good examples and remedies, 
  • analyzed song and hymn lyrics, 
  • provided a system for categorizing songs according to their Trinitarian content,
  • and provided helpful suggestions for modern song and hymn writers.

He does not limit himself to congregational song, however; his healthy theology of worship includes every action of gathered worship, so he addresses the sacraments, praying, and preaching. An author that will quote both Basil of Caesarea and Matt Redman while making the same point has done his work and knows how to work his material. In spite of my rant about tone, this is a book I will recommend and use.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Zeal of Thy House

It wouldn't have been an obvious connection to me, four weeks ago, but reading Dorothy Sayers' chancel drama, "The Zeal of Thy House," is directly related to my reading of Karl Barth on Mozart. Late in April one of my professors, David McNutt, gave a fascinating lecture on "A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity." You can listen to it starting here.

Then, just days later, my last reading assignment for grad school was Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, in which twice Barth mentions Sayers as both essayist and playwright. It was clear to me that I would be reading Sayers this summer!

I've read quite a bit of Sayers over the years. Lord Peter Wimsey stories, of course, but also her essays, and her radio drama, "The Man Born to be King" (to which Barth refers in his little book on the Apostles' Creed). Professor McNutt's lecture reminded me of the title of "The Zeal of Thy House," which I promptly put on my summer reading list. This weekend was my time for that.

Sayers was once considered the preeminent English detective mystery writer. She considered her work translating Dante's Divine Comedy to be her best work. She was a clear and incisive apologist of the Christian faith; many know two of her essays: "The Dogma is the Drama" and "The Mind of the Maker." In the latter she makes artistic creativity an analogy for the Trinity. And that is the tie to the play at hand. It is hardly a "spoiler" to cut to the end and summarize her vestigia Trinitatis argument:
First: there is the Creative Idea . . . and this is the image of the Father.
Second: there is the Creative Energy . . . and this is the image of the Word.
Third: there is the Creative Power . . . and this is the image of the Spirit.
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.
(Don't rush to judgment about Sayers without reading her where I have put in elipses!)

In much the same way as Barth on Mozart, in no small part this little play can be read as a dramatic treatise on general grace. But only much in the same way. For - and here, I will  be careful to not give spoilers - this is a work about the work of the church, and there must necessarily be special, particular revelation, judgment and redemption.

The choir (a section of the cathedral)
image from pitt.edu, glossary of medieval art and architecture:http://www.pitt.edu/~medart/menuglossary/
 of Canterbury Cathedral has been burned after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Was it the judgment of God? But now the choir is to be rebuilt, and three architects are finalists in the selection. The committee select the cynical foreigner (a Frenchman, of course!) whose religion is his work. And whose work is his pride: "At my age one learns that sometimes one has to damn one's soul for the sae of the work. Trust me, God shall have a choir fit for His service. Does anything else really matter?"

Does anything else really matter? That is the theme that runs through the play. It plays out in the conversations among workmen and between clergy, and with both in exchanges with William of Sens, the architect. Throughout, the veil is pulled back so we see the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, who have God's work to do in all this. And we hear the voice of the choir - that is, the human voice of the monks in hymns and chants - which carries on even if there is no finished space for their worship.

Theater doesn't work well when it answers questions. And in that sense, perhaps, "The Zeal of Thy House" might not be excellent drama. But as I read it, I again found myself eager to be in a setting where "chancel drama" like this could be done well and effectively. Sayers wrote a number of plays for performances in sacred spaces and for ecclesiastical events. Not unlike Benjamin Britten's chancel operas and the medieval mystery plays from which they are drawn, and T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral," Sayers' work doesn't really belong on the stage as such, but in spaces where people gather for Christian worship, and in which audiences might be challenged to think, and even to worship.
Dorothy L. Sayers, "The Zeal of Thy House" (Canterbury: H. J. Goulden, Ltd., 1937)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Barth on Mozart

It is a little collection of encomia from the twentieth century’s most prominent Protestant theologian to the best-loved, and probably irreligious, composer of the late eighteenth century. For years I’ve been aware of this little book, and finally got around to reading it this week.

It can be read in a single sitting, but Karl Barth’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is worth savoring over a long weekend. The magisterial dogmatician’s ebullient delight in Mozart and his music reveals just the kind of child-likeness that the author admires in the composer.  Over and over in these four short pieces Barth praises Mozart’s capacity for “play,” and that delightful verb characterizes his prose as well. As one very skilled amateur musician friend of mine often remarked, “this is why we say we are playing music.” It is fun to see the towering theologian agog at the bewigged wunderkind.

Three words capture what Barth admired in Mozart: joy, freedom, grace. Of course Barth cannot ignore the irony that he, a Reformed dogmatic theologian, should favor Mozart’s music over all others. Shouldn’t Bach, the quintessential church and Christian composer, have that place of honor? “It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.” (23) No, while for Barth Bach is perhaps too much concerned with a message (and Beethoven with a personal confession); “Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” (37) It is this singing and sounding, with joy and in freedom, that appealed to Barth.

And what of grace, that sola of the Reformation? Where does Barth find grace in this apparently disinterested Roman Catholic and Freemason, whose sacred music is often accused (I admit, I am among the accusers) of being disinterested in or flippant with sacred texts? Barth’s little book might well serve as an exercise in the theology of “common grace,” of the imago Dei which flares out of even unworthy vessels. (Think of Salieri’s arguments with God in Amadeus. PeterSchaeffer’s play neatly captures the jealousy “religious” people sometimes have when they see God’s creative gifts so freely distributed.) This book of short pieces on Mozart might, I say, serve as an argument for common grace. But to Barth’s credit, and for the enjoyment of the reader, he does not.

Because, surprisingly, Barth finds something genuinely sacred in Mozart’s music. In explanation of his love for Mozart, he notes that “the New Testament speaks not only of the kingdom of heaven but also of parables of the kingdom of heaven.” (57) Mozart’s joy, freedom, and grace as parables of the kingdom, the presence of God. Well and good, but what about his sacred music? How are we to square the unavoidably happy sounds we hear in his Kyrie and Miserere? "We will never hear in Mozart an equilibrium of forces and a consequent uncertainty and doubt." No matter how some of the more somber movements of the Mass may begin, they will eventually  
sound as if borne upward by the trust that the plea for mercy was granted long ago[.] Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine! In Mozart’s version he evidently has already come. Dona nobis pacem! – a prayer, but a prayer already answered. This feature is enough to mark Mozart’s church music as truly sacred, all objections notwithstanding.(56) 
And, dare I say, may make a Mozart Mass suitable for a Protestant Eucharist!

Barth’s pieces were all written in 1956 for Swiss periodicals upon the bicentennial observation of Mozart’s birth. A nice bonus in the edition I have just read is the Foreword by John Updike. Here again, a nice surprise for those who do not know the religious, theologically serious side of Updike. This makes a nice companion for a playful collection by a towering theologian. Perhaps that could only happen with Mozart in the middle.

Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart trans. Clarence K. Pott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A single step

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

Of course, there are many steps before that single journey-beginning first step. Even packing one's bags takes many steps. Hey, I took a few just to make sure I had this Chinese proverb right (when I could have just relied on Google instead of opening Bartlett's Familiar Quotations). Which makes me wonder, exactly how many steps follow the single step at the beginning of this journey?

Yesterday I took that first step of my summer journey: 80 words of my thesis, done. Hey, no one said they couldn't be baby steps! The day was filled with many preparatory details, sort of a cross between looking through my bags one last time, and making sure I had my maps. (Because, smart phone or no, I will take maps on a vacation. See Bartlett's comment above.) I re-packed my bags. I worked through a recently written paper to see how it best fit into chapter one of the thesis. I followed trails (and yes, I did much of that online). I had second thoughts: "Should I actually begin with the Introduction? Or with this chapter, with materials already fresh and close at hand?"

By the end of the afternoon, I had slogged through my single step. Eighty words:

Music in the eighteenth-century Lutheran liturgy was composed, performed, and practiced in keeping with theological principles articulated by Martin Luther. Luther’s practical theology of music was evident in the content, actions, and participants of the liturgy. Preceding and undergirding the practical, Luther’s appreciation for and use of music was rooted in biblical and philosophical perspectives that constitute a more systematic theology of music. As with Luther’s theology generally, his theology of music is “occasional” and found throughout his collected works. 
I am not going to write my thesis online. I only put this here because there is no way this is how chapter one will begin when I'm finished with it. But it is enough to get me out of the house, down to street level, and get my bearings.

Eighty words is just under one percent of the total word count of the last grad school paper I wrote. A paper, not coincidentally, on a Lutheran theology of liturgical music. I have fairly good reason to expect that the next steps will be bigger, or will come at a more rapid pace. They had better! I anticipate the thesis being around 40,000 words. Off we go! This thousand mile journey is supposed to be complete by Labor Day.