Who Loves Us? or What’s Up With Worship Music?

I am a passionate worshiper. I sing loudly and feel the songs deeply. As a former drummer, I also dig rockin’ worship.worship blue

Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.

Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all  three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.

I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.

It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.

The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

 

Right off the bat we have 4 problems:

1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all.  It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.

Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship!  Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.

2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.

‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.

Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.

3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.

When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there?  It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.

Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.

4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).

Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.”  And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.

My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.

 

I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though. 

Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.

In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as  our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.

It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections. 

How (not) to speak (about the power) of God

I appreciated many things about the most recent TNT episode in which Tripp and Bo dealt with some of the questions and common misconceptions of process theology and its differences from other theologies like Arminianism and open theism.  I also enjoyed the exchange between Tripp and Brandon in the comment section.  This podcast and blog is one of the best places out there for constructive theological conversation.  I have read Whitehead and studied process theology in some depth now, and I’m very impressed and challenged by much of it.  Getting to hear from John Cobb in person on a number of occasions was a highlight during my time at CGU.

I am not very interested in making statements about what counts as orthodoxy and what doesn’t, but I am concerned about giving past theological ideas a fair reading.  When treating central doctrines of the faith with scrutiny, therefore, I feel that the burden of proof should be on the innovator more so than on the tradition.  Of course, this does not mean that we cannot innovate.  On the contrary, innovation is essential, but problems occur when we do this without charitable consideration of those who have come before us — as Tripp and Bo know (that’s why they let people like me express somewhat divergent opinions on their blog!).

For guys who are as theologically astute as Tripp and Bo, however, I was a little surprised to hear what I consider to be a rather trite dismissal and caricature of the classical tradition’s way of talking about God’s power.  Specifically, I want to take issue with the claim made by process theology that “Constantinian” Christianity gave bad compliments to God that were better reserved for Caesar – omnipotence in particular.  The trouble is that oppressed Christians with minority and marginalized status under the rule of the Roman Empire gave “Caesar” attributes to God to distinguish themselves from Greek polytheism long before the church’s integrity was compromised by imperial power.  And they weren’t voluntarists (i.e., those who believe that God can do whatever God wants).  Now, this by itself does not mean that the early Christians were right to talk about God in the way they did, but I’m simply making the point that such supposedly misleading “compliments” predated the creeds and the councils, and were not made for the reasons that Tripp and Bo’s comments implied.  Yet the question still remains as to whether the early church was justified in how they conceived of God, and that’s what I want to consider first.

In the podcast, Tripp used the example of parenting to illustrate the problem of evil with respect to God’s power and God’s character.   The scenario was described in which a parent standing idly by watches while his or her child runs into the street, fully aware that a car is coming down the road and not intervening to save the child.  Clearly, by the standards of our finite, human and historical existence, this kind of parenting is unimaginable.  The conclusion is drawn then that if God fails to intervene in the world when God’s children are in imminent danger, God is a bad parent.  Therefore, if God is to remain good, it must be the case that God cannot “intervene.”

In order to arrive at this position, a comparison is made univocally to God’s relationship with human beings in history and space-time in general.  That is, it is assumed that human relationships between parents and their children are similar enough to the relationship between God and human beings for this exact parenting comparison to be used when talking about God.  According to the classical Christian way of talking about God though, and as Brandon Morgan points out, this direct comparison is a mistake.

As finite beings, all of our language is only fit to describe finite reality.  This leads some to conclude that all attempts to say anything positive about God are in vain.  But those like Thomas Aquinas for example, and Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted instead that one could indeed ascribe certain attributes to God by following a process of affirmation, negation, and remotion when talking about God (e.g., “God is like a parent in some respects, but only in limited correlation or proportionality, not directly”). This method of theology became known as the via analogia, or the “analogical predication of divine names.”  Thomas also has an account of God’s agency in the world in terms of secondary causality, which is a non-zero sum way of granting freedom to creation and human agents for participation in the purposes of God without infringing upon natural ends.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

In other words, while it is fitting to say that God loves us like parents love their children, this love, and this parenthood, are not im-mediately comparable to our finite and human experience of love and parenting.  All the more so when we get into specific human experiences like kids playing in traffic.  The idea that God could intervene to stop traffic is not the same kind of intervention that Christians hope for in the resurrection or in the eschaton.  The same goes for talking about God as a “ruler,” or as anything else.  Thus, when assessing and the nature of God’s character with respect to God’s power, we cannot rely too heavily on any one human analogy.  Only in the resounding overflow or of a plurality of names does the nature of God become even partially revealed.  Thus, whatever one makes of traditional accounts of God’s omnipotence, it does not equal “arbitrariness” or Caesar-style trumping power. 

Secondly, The problem of evil has troubled me deeply, and still does.  I do not feel resolved about it at all.  My dissertation is largely about this very subject.  But I think our refusal to tolerate a fair amount of mystery and childlike faith when it comes to explaining suffering has as much to do with our anthropocentric view of reality as it does with any possible deficiency in God’s character or power.  Much as I want it to, God’s goodness does not necessarily depend on what is good for humans and from our point of view right now.  I say this as someone who is as existentially disturbed by meaningless horrors in history as the next person.

Process folks like to recite the Philippians 2 hymn, but only the first half of it.  Yes, God’s power is most demonstrated in the self-emptying love of Christ on the cross.  In this sense, God can rightly be called a fellow-suffer who understands.  And on this same cross, the power of Caesar is judged, criticized, and exposed as fraudulent.  But only in the resurrection is the power of Caesar truly undermined, which Paul attests in “part two” of the Philippians hymn.  And according to Paul, the power of God is disclosed not as weakness, but in weakness – in becoming weakness, namely.  For without decent, there could be no ascent (metaphorically).

Similarly, the reign of God is known not so much by non-coercive power, but by power from below – power from the fringe.  There is a difference here. I am weary of any dualism between nature and super-nature as well, but if the resurrection isn’t meant to be a coercive rupture of the “as is” structure of reality, I don’t know what is.  I suggest, therefore, that Christians are better off not by taking issue with the idea of God having coercive power as such, but with God having top-down power.  It’s a false binary if we’re forced to choose between a Caesar-God and a persuasive God.  God’s top-down action is weak, but bottom-up, it’s strong, transformative and quite forceful.  This doesn’t need to mean it isn’t loving.  Somewhere herein lies an all-important distinction that might just make a way for a real eschatology without giving up the integrity of the physical universe.

Unfolded Episode 9 – Through The Motions

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In Episode 9 of Unfolded, the illustrious Dave Harrity reflects on relationships, marriage, love, awkwardness, pride and compassion in his poetic story entitled Through The Motions. And, as always, Matt Barlow shines on the 1’s and 2’s.

HarrityAuthorPhotoDave Harrity is an author and teacher from Louisville Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and kids. He is the author of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity and the Kingdom at Hand, which is available at seedbed.com. He is also the founder of Antler, a community building organization that exists to help people engage creativity as a devotional practice for spiritual formation. You can connect with Dave on twitter @daveharrity.

We  truly love feedback and dialogue. Please leave comments here on the blog and let us know what you thought of this episode — liked it? Didn’t like it? Why? And be sure to follow Matt and Jesse on twitter.

Please subscribe to Unfolded on itunes. Non iTunes users can grab the feedburner feed HERE or listen through Stitcher. And when you’re done listening to the show, you can read Through the Motions here.

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Unfolded Episode 2 Teaser!

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What’s up deacons! The next episode of the Unfolded podcast will be dropping this Sunday, April 14, but until then we wanted to give you a taste of what is headed your way–check it out!

This episode is fairytale entitled, Do you want to be free?

Rob Bell, that new show with Carlton Cuse & Post-Mars Hill Goodies [Podcast ep.168]

Rob Bell is back on the podcast.  He is no longer a Grand Rapids resident, a congregational minister, or wearing black framed glasses!!! In the past year he moved to Orange County and has been busy working on the pilot of a new TV show with Carlton Cuse from Lost.  Rob threw out the idea of interviewing him before the taping of a pilot episode and we said ‘yes.’

The conversation was recorded in two parts.  The first half was recorded in person back stage before the show taping and the second on the phone since Carlton needed Rob.  Getting cut off by Carlton was awesome.

In this interview Bo asks him about what he has been reading. Check out Rob Bell’s reading list here.  

Check out Rob’s last visit to the podcast and Bo and I’s discussion of the new show.
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Mutiny Live (10/25)

Come on out for a live mutinous podcasting experiment. Join Captain Brewin, Peg-Legged Pete, & Barry the Skull Keeper for some philosophical swash-buckling & fresh brewed pints at the Monkish Brewing Co.

Kester Brewin is bringing the good news of pirate inspired mutiny to the USA. We shall be seeking the wisdom of Blackbeard, Luke Skywalker, Peter Pan and Odysseus and other eye-patched heroines as we reflect on personal development, art, economics and faith. If hearing from Kester about his newest book Mutiny! wasn’t enough… he’s bring two fellow philosophical swashbucklers, Peter Rollins & Barry Taylor, who shall assist him in over-throwing the intellectual & cultural scurvy.

Get your Mutinyt! tickets here. They are $15 and there only 50 available so Go Over-Board NOW!

Those in attendance are encouraged to come in Pirate gear. Should you NOT come with at least an eye patch you will be publicly shamed into purchasing Tripp an additional pint and yell ‘Arr’ with gusto.

For directions to Monkish Brewery go here. Look at pictures so you don’t get lost… it has happened before.

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I Could Not Be Less Reductive: Love, Sex and Faith

It has become quite clear over the past several years that the source of many arguments in my life and in our culture ordinate with a desire to reduce things down to their simplest components or lowest common denominator. Over the past decade I have really embraced a complexity model of things. I can illustrate it with two examples:

  •  The foundational thinking of Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias – the apologetics school I had been groomed in – began to ring hollow in a number of areas. Through that process, I came to see the advantage of conceptualizing reality as a web, anchored in several locations, rather than a building resting on one key foundation.

The foundationalist approach is scary in a shifting culture. What used to seem rock solid is in danger of falling like a house of cards if even one element is moved or compromised.

  •  I moved from a magical ex nihilo understanding of 6 day creation (it was not the theologically sophisticated one you might be familiar with) but could not buy the cold darwinian evolution that had been so demonized in my camps.  Turns out that both a fairly reductive. It wasn’t until I discovered emergence thought and the interplay of elements that I was able to move beyond the simple either-or option of creation vs. evolution.

 This move away from the reductive becomes important in three key conversations: love, sex, and faith. 

 Love – when I talk with other youth pastors or teens from other youth groups, I am frequently surprised with just how often a reductive approach is taken on the topic love. “Is love an action or an emotion?” Sometime a third option will be given: “or a decision”. 

Its not that the answer to the question is that consequential. That is easy enough to deal with. It is the thinking behind the question that is so dangerous! Of course love is an action, it comes with feelings and creates more feelings and we make decisions about that at every step along the way. Its easy enough to side step the either/or trap … what concerns me is why something as grand and essential complex as love has to be reduced down to a single element? What is the driving influence there?  It is bigger than just getting christian teens to not ‘give into their emotions’ or to show their love for God and the world by putting it into ‘action’ whether they feel like it or not.  There is something else behind that reductive move.

Sex – I am truly shocked by how often a reductive maneuver is employed by those who are a little more conservative than me when the topic of sex comes up. “While sex may be pleasurable – in the end, it is primarily about procreation” my debate partner will say. “In fact, God probably made it pleasurable so that we would want to do it more.”

I object to this live of reasoning strenuously!  Sex is about a whole myriad of things.

Our sexuality is about pleasure, connection, expression, intimacy, power, procreation and drive.  It certainly is not about just one thing.

Look, I know a heterosexual couple that can’t procreate. They have a very healthy sex life. I know another couple who did procreate (twice) and are finding that it is significantly impeding their sex life.

Sex in the 21st century is not just or even primarily about procreation. Even heterosexual couples who can procreate have sex that does not result in pregnancy.

 Faith – I have heard voices as disparate as Slavo Zizek and Martin Luther pull a reductive move when it comes to faith. Zizek has said on more than one occasion that he would like to see good deeds done for no other reason than that they the right thing to do – good on their own merit – and not because the one who does it gets anything out (like an altruistic sense of satisfaction) or believes that she will be rewarded for it in the next life. This reminds of Luther’s early wrestling with loving God (If I only love God for saving me then I have loved God for the wrong reason and it is not love worthy of God … etc.)

 I don’t get this at all!  It seems to me that whether you believe in a God (I do) or whether you subscribe to a social construction theory of morality (that as social mammals it benefits us to benefit others in a series of non-zero and reciprocal relationships) that both are best understood as essentially complex webs of meaning and relationship.

Let’s take the God road for a minute. If there is a God who wants me to do good things, then it stands to reason that I may be made in such a way that I both enjoy doing that good and benefit from it. That does not take away from the goodness itself, it is just distributed to several factors of befit. Why is it only truly a good deed if I get nothing – not even satisfaction – out of it. Even if I do something anonymously for which there can be no reciprocal or social benefit, I’m not allowed that simple satisfaction of knowing I did something good?  So the only truly good deed is done with emotional distance and internal steel?  That is bogus! It seems to me that even without God in the equation, that reductive move is limiting and harmful, even self-defeating.

A far better approach would be embrace the social locatedness of human existence and to recognize the collective pot of goodness to which we both benefit from and contribute to. A pot of common-wealth that is both relational and substantial that has made us who we are – we have been molded, shaped and groomed by it – and to which we participate that can benefit others as well as be rewarding for us.

Doing good is complex and it is essentially complicated. We don’t need to break that down and diagnose it as much as we need to embrace it and pour ourselves into it.

In the end, I see this impulse toward the reductive to be not only limiting to thought but detrimental to joy. I think we are missing out by not embracing the multifaceted and layered complexity of love, sex and faith.

-Bo Sanders