Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Church & State... again

Yesterday I was lurking on a conservative Christian forum and read something that took shocked me... one of the participants said that he and his wife had "agreed to pray against Barack Obama... to pray for his utter failure." I wondered about the implications. If a presidency "utterly fails," what does that mean for the people? What about those who would lose their jobs or their lives if that prayer were answered? What does such a prayer tell us about an individual's understanding both of God and of their role in society? And how does it jive with Biblical injunctions to ray for those in power or even to love our enemies? How does praying for something that would invariably cause the suffering of so many people remotely resemble anything that Jesus would do?

Then today, I saw a link to a report on Ethics Daily, a centrist to left leaning Baptist publication, that tells about a meeting of about 40 conservative Christian leaders who met in Dallas to strategize about what they could do to defeat Obama in 2012.

I have posted before that I believe freedom of religion ensures that people of faith, any faith no matter how repugnant, can bring their religious belief to their political decisions. So at a technical level, I have no issue with what the poster said on the forum or what the "Christian leaders" did. On a faith level, I think they have all missed the boat and are reflecting anything but a Christian understanding of the issues before us. Whenever I read these kinds of things I am always taken back to my seminary days at Eastern Baptist Seminary where one of my professors declared, "It is not possible to be a Christian and a conservative." I think there may have been a bit of hyperbole going on, but as a general statement, I think the prof was accurate.

On a political level and a pastoral level, I mourn such closed minds. How can they speak to a culture which has embraced at least openness to discussion if not pluralism? What happens to church members who are not quite so sure about specific political stances? What happens to anyone who is able to see merit even in some opposing opinions? And what about those who need healthcare, unemployment insurance, Social Security, etc.? What does it say from a pastoral standpoint when you're unemployed and your pastor stands in the pulpit and argues that we should suspend unemployment benefits while at the same time extending tax cuts for the richest in our society? And not only should we do these things, they are the things that God requires of us? (guess they haven't read any of the prophets).

And finally, I read a quote from St. Augustine the other day that seems appropriate here... when St. Augustine was asked for the three great principles of Christianity, he replied: "First, humility. Second, humility. Third, humility." If I try to think of any characteristics, good or bad, that might define those people... humility ain't it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

a million and a half

guitars that is...

C.F. Martin Guitars founded in 1833, is the grand-daddy of acoustic guitars, and their designs have been the model that almost all others either copy or react against. Located in Nazareth, PA, they are a factory now, producing something like 500 guitars a week. Even their limited edition guitars far outnumber the production of an individual luthier or small shop. Still, they do build some wonderful guitars and many of the most sought after guitars were constructed by the craftspeople of C.F. Martin. Go to any gathering of acoustic guitarists and you're bound to see scores of Martins and virtually ever acoustic player either has owned a Martin at one point or other or wants to. I've had three or four through the years. I have played a few that were astoundingly good - particularly an 0017H which I think was built in the '20's and a pre-war D28 - beautiful, beautiful guitars... It is hard for me to imagine a company that has been producing essentially the same product for over 170 years and which has had such a seminal influence in its industry as had Martin.

As you can see in the photo above, they're working on serial number 1,500,000 which is slated to debut at the January NAMM show in LA. The photo, by the way, comes from Harvey Leach, a very talented guitar builder who also does inlay work for Martin and a number of other guitar companies. Click here to see some of his inlay work. This guitar is just amazing. He was contracted, along with scrimshaw master Bob Hergert to do the inlay on number 1.5 million. He can't show us any more until Martin releases photos.

Congratulations to all the folk at C.F. Martin! And to Harvey Leach for being a part of this project.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Music of the Spheres

As I was reflecting more on music in worship, I remembered this silly little piece by Steve Martin

I don't believe for a second that atheists have no songs... but there is something inherently "spiritual" or "religious" about music when it is at its best. There are those moment when music takes us outside and beyond ourselves and connects us with that for which there are no words. I remember the first time I herd a good soprano sing Puccini and felt the goosebumps on my back... Gorecki's Sorrowful Songs moved me to tears. When I first heard Edgar Varese's Density 21.5 as a junior high student, it made me hear things in a new way. Julie Miller's Broken Things felt so right after 9/11. My list could go on and on... I have heard so many performances that have opened new windows for me, taken me to places I had never imagined, broken my heart, and healed it, connected me to other people and the world around me, and shown me how isolated and alone I am.

As a performer, that spiritual side of music is even more pronounced. There are those moments when a band or choir or duo melt together and it isn't a group of individuals playing or singing, it is one body in touch with something in the very structure of creation. The performers disappear and all that is there is the music. When that happens, it is communion in the deepest sense.

Which brings me to the tiny bit I have read about string theory - that everything is made of tiny strings which are constantly vibrating (music) and the "pitch" of the vibration determines whether the strings make up matter or energy... At it's deepest level, everything that is, is a song sung by God. And I get to sing and make music along with God.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

church music

I've been thinking a lot about church music these days. I'm trained as a classical musician (my undergraduate degree) although "serious" music is rarely my first choice for listening. I'm much more interested and moved by "folk music" as defined as the music of the people. It amazes me how simple words and a simple melody and chord progression can effect a person... which brings me to music in the church.

A person I follow on Twitter tweeted a link the other day to an entry on Adam Young's blog with a recording of a song we do in worship sometimes written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend called In Christ Alone. I find the song moving (and I like his version). I love the melody. The chord changes are simple, but just work for me. It picks up a bit of a Celtic flavor, which always hooks me. But... there are bits of the theology that rub me the wrong way. Adam leaves out the second verse which, in the second half, says -
'Til on the cross as Jesus died
the wrath of God was satisfied.
For every sin on Him was laid;
here in the death of Christ I live.

I don't worry about the wrath of God. Indeed, I don't believe in the wrath of God, so when we sing it, we substitute "love" for "wrath" although it still has some implications regarding atonement that don't fit my theology. Likewise in the third verse, the last line makes me cringe a bit - "bought with the precious blood of Christ." Yep... we change "blood to "love" also. But the theory of the atonement implied still isn't mine. I understand the crucifixion in a very different way than is implied in these verses. And then the 4th verse, which is the last one in Adam's recording, seems to imply a bit of Calvinism... that God has marked out my destiny and nothing can move me from God's pre-ordained path. Again, this makes me cringe.

But I love the song. And the reality is that there are not that many congregational songs out there that have both good and deep theology. If you're looking for music that moves a person on top of the theology, the choices are many, many fewer.

Add to that - my experience tells me that people are more likely to get their theology from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear (think about that the next time your kid listens to some gangster rap on his or her Ipod) even if they aren't really paying attention to what is being said/sung. So what do I do? Obviously, from the first sentence in my second paragraph, sometimes I choose songs with which I'm not entirely happy. Sometimes I change a word or two, here or there (in Amazing Grace, we change "wretch" (or worm) to "one.") Sometimes, I just let a beautiful melody catch my heart and take it where it wants to go, hoping that when we sit and talk about things, our theology will straighten things out and we'll enjoy the beauty and throw out the parts that don't fit.

How about you? Do you sing or play songs that, if you think about them, really don't measure up to your theology? to your experience of God? Do you lean towards getting the theology right or having music that causes your heart to soar? And how do those two pieces influence one another?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Christian Music?

The other day I was talking with someone about the Cambridge Drive Concert Series and the person asked me whether or not we presented Christian music.

It is a curious question, isn't it? I answered, "no," but now I wonder whether that was the right answer. I'm not entirely sure what the question means. In my theology, to be "Christian" involves a commitment to try to follow Jesus. How could a song do that? You might argue that lyrical content could define a piece of music as either "Christian" or not, but you'd need to be very careful there. What about instrumental music? There have been times when cultural definitions have come into play and certain intervals, rhythms, or even specific instruments have been declared anti-Christian... In some traditions, having instruments at all is still considered idolatrous. It wasn't that long ago that Larry Norman asked, "why should the Devil have all of the good music?" Now you wouldn't find many churches in SoCal that don't have a band with bass and drums. As times and cultures change so have those definitions of sinful music. And what about a song with lyrics that never mentions God? Can it be "Christian?" The Song of Songs in the Bible is interesting in that it never mentions God and includes material that according to many definitions might be labeled as pornography, especially if the euphemisms where translated into modern language. So context and interpretation become important. So what does the question mean. What is "Christian" music?

After thinking about it, I'd push the question in a different way and ask myself, "what is the role of music (or art) in the yearnings of God?

I have a clear answer to that question. We do art or music because we are created in the image of God, at least part of which means that we are by nature, creative. When God created, God pronounced what had been made as "good." We can continue to add to the beauty, the goodness of creation by what we create. In creating, we show forth our nature as human beings. In creating, we present new ways of experiencing and knowing the creation and of experiencing and knowing God.

So... I'd have a hard time finding much art that isn't "Christian." Sure there are some things out there that are just gratuitous and even some that just make the world uglier, without inspiring us to see with new eyes or hear with new ears... but sometimes even those works tell us about the pains and frustrations of being human and illuminate the work yet to be done.

Next time I think I'll answer "yes... Christian, but not necessarily religious" and let the questioner figure out what that means.

Monday, November 01, 2010

I Remember

vote on November 2nd. it is important