Monday, April 03, 2006

rolling stones theology

i went down to the chelsea drugstore
to get your prescription filled
i was standing in line with mr. jimmy
and man, did he look pretty ill
we decided that we would have a soda
my favorite flavor, cherry red
i sung my song to mr. jimmy
yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was ‘dead’
you can’t always get what you want
you can’t always get what you want, no
you can’t always get what you want
but if you try sometime you just might find
you get what you need

in this month’s christianity today, chuck colson, already one of my heroes of social commentary, hits a grand slam in my book. in soothing ourselves to death: should we give people what they want or what they need? colson rails against endless repetition in church of meaningless ditties that have zero theological content and could just as easily have been sung in any nightclub. he opines that churches are becoming more “theater-like” and christian radio stations are dropping “serious programming in favor of all-music formats.” The reason? because, as one station manager pointed out, “(w)e don’t want to do anything that will upset our listeners.” we are “so busy . . . taking care of the kids, family activities, Bible study, cooking etc., that (we don’t) even read the newspaper or care what is happening in the world around (us). Church for (us) is getting (our) spirits lifted.”

so, why the shift from active participant to passive receiver? colson notes, correctly, that cognitive thinking, which is necessary when engaging such heady stuff as discipleship and discussions of how christianity works within moral and ethical constructs, is becoming increasingly difficult in america. “According to a recent study,” colson notes, “the average college graduate’s proficient literacy in English has declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent today. The study defines proficient literacy as the ability to read lengthy, complex texts and draw complicated inferences. Think about it: one out of three college graduates cannot read a book or absorb a serious sermon.” sadly, as a professor, i witness this daily in the classroom. and, sadly, as a life-long church goer, i have seen it in the pew. life being what it is and humans being who we are, most of us find it more comfortable to be passive receivers than active participants in life. these facts beg the question, “why?”

in the article’s title and body, colson nudges us toward another of my heros who was on to the answer decades ago. neil postman knew that television would eventually impair our capacity to think. indeed, the center of most american homes is no longer the kitchen table, but the home theater - bigger screens, louder sound systems, and more comfortable chairs. postman prophetically predicted how television’s influence would effect the home. however, the effects of television have spilled out of the home and into the church. unfortunately, our churches are no longer setting the standards for the home; instead, churches are following the trends of the american family. more and more sanctuaries echoe the informality of the american living room, complete with comfortably squishy theater seats instead of hardwood pews, and projection screens that remove the worshiper from the text of things like hymn books and, well, THE TEXT. as an academic whose primary tools are texts, this is alarming. as a worshiper who sees american churches becoming a blend of the home theater and the country club, this is frightening. many american churches, in my estimation, tend to focus on filling, not a spiritual void, but a social void via egocentric entertainment as opposed to the individual focusing on god.

the projection screen is doing for american churches what larry mcmurtry says the 24hour gas station did for travel. in the latter case, a traveler can literally drive across the continent and never actually not have a roof over his head. he can leave his house and enter his car in a garage, obtain fuel under covered pumps, and purchase pretty much any amenity he needs in the gas station itself, most of which offer more choices than walmart did in the early days of sam walton. in other words - travel has become comfortable and, therefore, easy. similarly, in the former case, the projection screen has made the american sanctuary a mirror of the home. in other words - worship has become comfortable and, therefore, easy. come in on sunday morning in casual dress, flop down in a cushy seat, pat our feet to the band, watch the screen. this is fun stuff. but having faith in the real world is not always fun. in fact, more often than not, it’s hard work. and if we are not used to the mental and physical heavy lifting required of church worship, what will happen when the real world becomes uncomfortable? maybe this is why i am drawn to “high church.” preparation is a pain. i have to iron my shirt on saturday night. i don’t really enjoy wearing a coat and tie on sunday mornings. i get hot. my neck itches. and if i’ve strained or pulled a muscle in a weekend activity, the wooden pews acutely remind me of my physical limitations. sometimes, while juggling a hymn book, a book of common prayer, and the bible i drop things, and i am reminded of my clumsiness. at other times the predictability of the liturgy makes it difficult to keep focused on the task at hand, reminding me of my mental weaknesses as well. and yet, each of these inconveniences work in concert to keep me focused on the act of worship itself. each discomfort is a reminder that worship is not about me - it’s about god.

maybe mr. jimmy read chris van allsburg’s children’s book, the wretched stone. maybe not. but in the end, church ought not to be about what we want - our favorite flavors. church ought to be about what we need.


Steve Bezner said...

I hear you...sort of.

I think that church should be about what we need to teach and form faith and virtue and character. And engaging the text and God in a meaningful fashion is important.

But I don't think projection screens are the devil. And I don't think praise choruses with repetition are bad, either. Ever heard Handel's "Messiah"? "Forever! And Ever! Alleleuia! Alleluia! Forever! And Ever! Alleluia! Alleluia!" Ad infinutum. But it's beautiful and meaningful. Someone wise once said that repetition is the mother of learning. I think that when we repeat words in songs we might be internalizing the vocals more easily than singing over a phrase once about "raising mine Ebenezer."

Now don't get me wrong. I like hymns. In fact, I love hymns. But do we have to be uncomfortable when we sing them? Do they have to be sung with an organ? What if we took hymns and rearranged them to music with drums and a guitar. Is that evil?

It's funny that you like that article. I found Colson's first paragraph to be the most offensive, closed-minded, uncharitable reading of contemporary worship that could be offered.

His indictment of cognition and thinking is spot on. But to liken contemporary worship to a nightclub would be equivocating in me quipping that hymns remind me of singing a funeral dirge. Neither is accurate or fair.

Scott said...

Well, I hear you ... big time.

It parallels the post you wrote recently about Americans getting soft. Here's what I mean...

As a preacher, I have been reminded time and again that most folks resent being asked to think in church - whether during the singing, or the sermons, or the scripture readings, or the prayers. They want things digested for them, thought for them, and presented in a way that requires little critical reason.

I, for one, refuse. I desire to love the Lord my God with all my MIND and STRENGTH, as well as my heart and soul.

I agree with Steve that the forms do not always the problem - but we can all agree that the forms are often used to replace something very fundamental in worship - my active, critical, self-starting, self-impassioned participation in the glorification of God.

Oh, Steve is correct on another point - the same has historically been done with the older hymns - we've sung those without thinking for YEARS (ask many of the older folks what the Ebenezer is, or the focus of "'Tis Midnight in the Garden Now"). The dumbing down of worship isn't new - it's just transforming into new traditions.

Great post!

WHAC 40 Days said...

This is what I wrote to CT:

Dear CT,

I have been a listener and reader of Chuck Colson and am currently reading through The Good Life. I am usually inspired by his articles, and although I agree with much of what he writes regarding radio programming, it is in my opinion that his classification of contemporary praise music, more specifically the "meaningless ditty called 'Draw Me Close to You'" is unfair and lacks perspective. (However, to say that this particular song maybe sung in a nightclub would probably be a compliment to its author.)

As a song leader myself, I find it rare that I am more an intellectual than a feeler. I believe there are Wesley songwriters in this age. I hope that in my song writing and song leading, that I would never compromise doctrine and truth for audience reaction. Corporate reaction to the revelation given by a song is rooted in how the body of individuals, each in their own way, responds to the moving of the Spirit. And although I do not infer that Chuck change his position on this matter, I think it is worth him examining his opinion of how and what the Spirit may choose to work through. I would not go as far to say that one could connect with God through gibberish lyrics, but I would claim that Chuck is lacking perspective in saying that “You’re all I want, you’re all I’ve ever needed” is meaningless ditty when actually it is merely a re-phrasing of John Piper’s life statement, “God is most glorified in you, when you are most satisfied in Him,” or Jonathan Edward’s insight that God is the chief end for all creation, specifically man. God is all that man has ever wanted and needed.

Thank God that He chooses to reveal Himself to simple people through simple means. It is pharisaic to refuse to worship at the chance of a song not containing familiar theological jargon. Even a child could relate to the lyrics of “Draw Me Close to You.” But the beauty of this song is not that it is simple and effective, but that it is simple and packed with meaning!

It will be interesting to find out while singing this ditty, how many people might have prayed this prayer, “Lord, I am bankrupt. My mind is corrupt and incapable of connecting with you unless you ‘draw me close to you.’ Lord, if left up to me, I would probably run from your grace, so please ‘never let me go.’ I have tried anything and everything and still find myself wanting. Thank you that today I have discovered that it is really You that I’ve always wanted and needed.”

Maybe not being a song writer himself, Chuck may have forgotten that sometimes God chooses to use what humans may think are the worst of the worse. If God can use a song to bring someone to true repentance and a new life in Christ, even if sung in a nightclub, how can it be a meaningless ditty?

e. l. wood said...

whac40days - i appreciate your comments here. thanks for posting. i agree whole-heartedly that god can work through whatever means he wants to. certainly simplicity does not in and of itself disqualify a song from being a valid or invalid form of worship. i don’t think that is what i’m trying to say here at all. what i’m more concerned with is the lack of depth i tend to find when the average sunday morning only believer attempts to engage the world on its own terms. often when my students discuss moral and ethical dilemmas, they have very little theological backing to support their arguments. they can generalize about x issue, but when pressed, they often can not really defend their positions. i believe that this translates into actions. a quick example - i teach a leadership class of the top students our college has to offer. almost every student thinks that cheating on major exams is wrong. however, many of them think that cheating on homework is no big deal. even the believers. yet, when confronted with overt scripture that illuminates the error of this thinking, they just sorta shrug and back away from any discussion of the issue. they don’t want to engage in any sort of real debate in light of scriptural texts/truth. this behavior becomes even more disturbing when looking at what i think are larger issues such as euthanasia or cloning. let me be clear - I don’t think simply songs are responsible in and of themselves for this sort of thought process. rather - i think the demand for this sort of fare is a symptom of a much deeper problem in the american church. the church often seems more interested in making sure everyone is having a good time as opposed to equipping folks for living outside the bubble of the church community.

Cole said...

I hear ya, E Man. I appreciate your respect for high worship, particularly for the reasons you list. Way to make me think.

Now, about TV. The same thing was argued when novels came to the public front, you know. All those classical folks said novels would rot your brain and make you stupid. Funny, eh?