Wednesday, June 14, 2006

anyone for mysticism?

I've just completed an essay for my DMin in which I explored the spirituality that comes to us 'off the screen' - from what we sing in church. I took a pretty representative Baptist church in NZ and worked through its playlist of songs [and threw in the playlist from the Billy Graham Crusades (1959 & 1969) as well - to help provide some contrast.]

My conclusions? The lyrics suggest an alignment to what has been known through history as Christian Mysticism. Here are some of my (highly-generalised, for brevity's sake!) observations:

(a) The baseline in the lyrics lies with the immanence of God (his attributes which are close to us), rather than with the transcendence of God (his attributes which are more distant and mysterious). "The transcendent God has been lost, the immanent God has been abused." (David Wells)

(b) There is a personal striving in the songs (often accompanied by an overstatement of our commitment to God), rather than focusing on the 'striving' done by Christ for us (often accompanied by an understatement of God's commitment to us) and the assurance and tranquility and rest that this breathes into the believer's life. [NB: some of the Billy Graham songs do this so well - 'It is Well with My Soul', for example]

(c) An absence of any sustained reference to the Christian hope. This is a shocker! Our hope has always been great fodder for singing, but not now. Whether it is a case of "If life is pretty good down here in this 'health and wealth' world, why long for heaven?" or "Let's try and draw down more future-Kingdom stuff in order to enrich and empower present-Kingdom life ... thereby emptying the appetite for the second coming", I am not sure. But the New Testament is full of a Christian longing and waiting for heaven, and enduring life until then...

(d) An obsession with the present, with no lyrics written by a songwriter who has already died. Could this be the first ever era of church life where 'sing a new song to the Lord' has come to mean 'never sing an old song'? The clear priority is to sing about a present experience of a personal spirituality - with stuff from the past being seen as a boring and stale. [NB: I wonder if this is an example of babyboomers-in-control because anecdotally, I find young adults tend to have an interest in the past now.]

(e) A discomfort with singing of both the guilt associated with sinfulness and the reality of Christ's substitutionary death FOR me, preferring to focus on the consequences of that sinfulness in relational brokenness etc and what Jesus can add TO my life. [NB: a couple of British songs - In Christ Alone & How Deep the Father's Love partially redeemed the situation on this one!]

(f) A preference for the inner and the personal - adrift from what is received from outside as truth in the Bible. In any debate between having songs with muddled theology and having songs with outdated words - the latter seems to be the more grievous evil every time. WOW?! What on earth are we becoming?

These observations stand in the centuries-long tradition known as mysticism. To see this took me by surprise - but it shouldn't have. The charismatic and contemplative movements have been, or are, so strong in NZ (Baptist) church life. Plus, as I travel around, my observation is that we are not as biblically-based as we think we are (which is the core issue behind these observations). The commitment to the Bible tends to be more theoretical than it is practical in my experience. What can be done about this?

over to you - nice chatting

Paul

15 comments:

Mike C said...

Yes, I agree. I've noticed that more and more people are talking about this. Often I struggle with the words in modern songs because I feel like I'm lying to myself and God - by singing words that sound good together, by being idealistic, and by making promises that I can't keep. Songs that speak of the awesomeness of God are much better in my opinion - even if they're "outdated".

Michael Chernishov

Tash said...

some good and interesting observations. it would be interesting to present these to the worship leaders and pastors of our congregations. one of the key aspects of developing leadership in the future NZ church is the issue of theology & application within the sphere of corporate worship. Considering what a large portion of our community times it consumes, it seems there is a disproportionate requirement for theological training so as to prevent the slide into poor 'worship'.

Jane said...

Thanks Paul... you've put words and categories to an issue that has disquieted me for some time now...
As a thinking person I find myself more and more disturbed by the words that appear up on the screens, to the point where there are some lines I simply cannot join in singing. This is frustrating when I sincerely wish to worship but just can't bring myself to spout platitudes to the milk-sop God presented in these songs. "It's all about you" seems to have become "It's all about me"

I think Tash is on the money when she suggests theological training for worship leaders - perhaps a course at Carey on "Biblical Worship" is called for?

Sean du Toit said...

I wonder what an analysis of contemporary music, say Hillsong United, would reveal? Thanks for the thoughts, and if ya don't mind: I've passed this on to my friend who is lead worshipper at our place...

Ciao

Andy said...

As the Hymn Book of Israel (Psalms) has a substantial and central part in the foretelling and celebrating the immanent and transcendent God made known in Christ you'd have thought we'd have caught on that what we sing matters. Paul, your words are a comfort and a challenge, precisely because they communicate His Word.

There are few individuals better placed to exhort church leaders in NZ to restore (in repentance?) the Bible to it's rightful place in the corporate lives of the people of God. Praying for you and with you!

Paul Windsor said...

It is still a subject that provokes deep responses in us, isn't it? Thanx for jumping in ...

Like Andy, I do find that the Psalms show us how it is done. Those little Songs of Ascent are a great place to start(from 120-134 -"Hillsongs: the original soundtrack" :)!!) because virtually all of them are borne in deep pain. They engage with life as it really is. They do not escape it. Then through an encounter with a transcendent/immanent God they rise in worship - again and again (in just a few verses!). As I write I have Sons of Korah playing on my laptop. Their website has some intelligent stuff on the Psalms - www.sonsofkorah.com Eugene Peterson's Long Obedience in the Same Direction is another good resource.
Like Tash and Jane, a course on Biblical Worship at Carey has long been on the agenda... We have tried a few times and in 2007 we hope to launch a new course, drawing in some of our core faculty and featuring it as the years go by. It too important! It will be a blend of deep biblical/theological/historical reflection as well as contemporary practise and skill development - including music, but not only music!

Tash said...

Paul - I wonder if this isn't something that ought to be based around a week long block course model. maximise the accessibility for those that are volunteer practioners. after all = i guess restating my earlier point - when you consider how public and prominent the idea of corporate worship, esp. that based around song is; it's unusual how many of those ministries are run by volunteers rather than staff. it's not indicative of the quality, but perhaps limits the accessibility or prominence of theological/historical/applicatory training.

definitely something along the lines of a 'creative in the kingdom' block course/training seminar would find a deep pool of participants.

and i'm sure that you could find an event manager/creative type agency to help with that...

........ tash@solafida.co.nz

Andrew said...

At Pentecost we tried to find contemporary songs that linked Spirit and mission. Our worship leader couldn't find any! However, the question of why and what do we do about it are very hard. I wonder if some of the responsiblity lies with churches and pastors who have abdicated their responsibility of training theologically savvy music people? Why should we send our people involved in worship to Bible college for training when reflection on worship should be at the heart of the church! Isn't it the church's responsibility (being entrusted with the gospel) on this one? I wonder if the 'diet god/christianity' served up in worship songs is indicative of the wider issue of churches and leaders who don't feel confident with the gospel or theology? I feel sorry for the bagging (not saying that you are Paul) that Xn song writers get when perhaps Christian leaders should ask ourselves how theologically savvy or confident we are?

Paul Windsor said...

I'd like to see a team approach develop where the 'poets', the 'theologians', and the musicians come together in the development of songs for the Christian community today. Increasingly I am advocating something similar for aspects of the preaching task.

I'd also like to see more re-mixing of old songs and hymns. A little paraphrase here, a fresh tune over there. Some of that is happening. Look what has been done to Be Thou My Vision. My wife Barby tells me it has also been done to I am Not Skilled to Understand which has some airplay today.

And always remember - the hardest working CD in my car is from the Parachute Band! :)

Stephen G said...

Of course, this is probably only the tip of the ice berg.

I've asked students several times to tell me what the Christian hope is and how it shapes their lives. To be met with blank looks and shuffling feet. Most have said their churches have never mentioned it - or if they have it's wrapped up in some "Left Behind" type talk. Eschatological hope in general isn't talked about.

The other thing I saw the other day was an article talking about how physical resurrection - both Christ's and the promise for human beings - has also dropped out of the Christian consciousness.

Maybe the "mystical" bent is just another form of Gnosticism. If I sing the right thing then I possess the special knowledge to become on with the transcendent God?

Stephen G said...

I'll add to the last saying that it's probably one place where credal or liturgical traditions have the advantage in reinforcing things like hope and bodily resurrection.

For example, the Anglican Eucharist has the bit that's repeated each week by the congregation,

Glory to you, Lord Christ;
your death we show forth;
your resurrection we proclaim;
your coming we await;
Amen! Come Lord Jesus.

And the Apostles' Creed explicitly mentions the resurrection of the body.

Tash said...

in the 'remix' paul -- mostly recently, we re-wrote 'in full and glad surrender' by frances havergal. it's quickly become one of the MOST popular songs that we sing at church with our youth/young adult service. interestingly enough - I think Frances Havergal is one of my favourite writers... "take my life" .. anyway.. most have no idea that it's actually a hymn .. and the older folk in the congregation who recognise the lyrics have had no complaints about the new tune either...

the ROCK says said...

Hope I can add something in here...
For a while now I have had a problem with the Hillsong/Planet Shaker albums etc. It just seems to me that there are albums where the producers have said, 'We need another 2 songs' and so someone went and wrote another 2 songs. Personally, I love gospel music - Fred Hammond, Commissioned, Kirk Franklin etc. For me, I feel like a lot of their music is written from experience. From going thru something and actually writing about that situation. Not all their music is like that but it feels like a lot is.
I have also spent a lot of time watching the worship at church and wondering to myself, 'Is this any different to any secular concert or show?' I know it's an old question but being musical myself and coming from a worship team background, there are basic musical dynamics which most teams employ to get the desired response of worship - hands lifted, eyes closed, singing etc. We call it the 'presence of God' but I don't know if it's just 'hype' sometimes.

Paul Windsor said...

I guess an aspect of gospel music - and that wonderful African-American tradition - is not just that it 'is written from experience' ... but that it is written out of hard, tough, difficult experience. This creates the authenticity in our music for which people today are longing for.

Dee said...

Your survey is very interesting Paul. I wonder if the worship songs used in churches reflect the fact that much of the theology in churches comes from books by popular authors rather than from Bible study and reflection. Judging by the number of times authors are referred to in your previous blogs I think this is highly likely. I'd like to suggest doing a Google search on some of these authors, reading the reviews and biographical material and criticisms available, and weighing up whether or not they are having a good or bad effect on the church and its worship.