I hear dead people.

I wrote this trying to work out a perennial frustration with conservative Christian music. I’m not sure everything I’m writing here is correct, but this is the best I can work things out. So please, give me your comments/criticisms.

One of the great gaps between conservative Christian music and the culture at large is decontextualization. This works out in two factors:

1) Modern culture has decontextualized music to the point that music is being asked to do things that it doesn’t do gracefully.

A hundred years ago, almost everyone played music to some extent. Most people knew how to play an instrument at some level and those who didn’t at least sung, even if it wasn’t good. I remember seeing interviews with WWII vets who off-handedly talked about singing to each other from their fox holes, singing when they got back behind the lines, singing walking down the streets… These were tough, battle-hardened soldiers who sang and, when they sang, they sang romantic folk songs and clearly had some understanding of good vocal production and musical lines. They learned this because it was the culture they grew up in. But anymore, music production is reserved only for those few in an actual band. And the only one who sings is the frontman. Music as a family activity or even a communal activity is all but dead (outside of a few places like Asheville, NC). Now people entirely consume music by people they don’t know, singing about things they don’t have first hand experience of, and they’re listening in the disembodied medium of iPods, car stereos, etc. Strangely enough, along with this dislocation and depersonalization of music has gone the need for music to be more important and more potent, more a part of our lives, more intimate and personal. Whereas before, the personal and intimate and important aspects of music were at least heavily dependent on their live performance in a specific cultural context among people you knew (or you were even joining in the music yourself), now the disembodied, impersonal earbuds throw all the need for intimacy back on the performance itself. So music is more emotionally pushy, more orgasmically vocally expressive. You can sing about walking down the street or thinking about getting a hot dog so long as you sing it like you’re in the throes of the world’s best massage. That at least lets me know I’m listening to a human being who believes what he’s saying. Anymore, it’s the only known way to communicate the personal interaction and intimacy that used to be the purview of live music among people with real, known personalities.

This is why I don’t mind recorded music where a someone groans their passion about losing someone or about their devotion to Christ. But put them 5 feet from me in a live context and it’s suddenly downright uncomfortable. If it’s also someone I know, strap a turbo on my discomfort. They’re pushing all the over-the-top emotion required in a disembodied performance into a real, live, intimate context. It’s too much.

Mind you, I don’t think this way of performing is inherently wrong. That’s the categorical divide from me and most fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists will argue that this kind of emotional verisimilitude is wrong and then attend an opera where vocal sliding and rubato expression is entirely normative. They’re culturally comfortable with opera-drama whereas they’re not comfortable with hymn-drama. And they don’t notice the hypocrisy because in an opera, they’re 60 feet from the stage and they don’t understand the language. They understand that an over-the-top emotional performance is required, in that context, to get the message across. But that also proves the point that the style itself is not the issue. It’s fine to be over-the-top when it communicates without getting in the way.

Which brings me to my second point.

2) Fundamentalists create decontextualized music, but with resolute disregard for the decontextualization.

Most fundamentalists are firmly entrenched in the idea that, if the world is using this overly expressive music (they would say “sensual” music), then they will certainly not do that. (Strangely, this never carries over to the way they play, say the violin, which is always set to “maximum weep”.) So fundamentalists take nearly expressionless singing and plug it into the disembodied medium of recorded music, with the result being eerily similar to the singing of drugged cultists. They feel disembodied. They feel passionless. Their singing cannot cross the chasm from my earbuds into my heart. I don’t fellowship with anesthetized spirits. They just creep me out.

Again, I don’t think that this kind of musical performance is wrong, either. Put a person who sings like that in a room 5 feet from me and it’s actually rather meaningful. Much more so if I know the person. Once you re-introduce the aspects of live music, real contexts and real people, communication finds a thousand other subtle outlets of expression in posture, facial expression, relationship, history, acoustics, and on and on. Five feet away, direct human feel and gutsiness are much better communicated around the music than in the music itself, which would free musical lines and tone to be clear and make skill more beautiful and appreciated. The music can feel human again because the humanity is coming heavily through the contextual halo around the music and so the music is more free to BE music rather than verisimilitude. This is why I can go to sacred choral concerts when they’re live, sit in the front row and be tremendously moved, but when the group releases their music on CD it’s nearly unlistenable.

I remember when doing stage acting in a 1,500-seat theater that my gestures, bearing, speech, and volume had to be blown way out of proportion. I’d strut around with over-the-top gestures and slow, horribly loud line deliveries where EV-er-EE SYL-la-BLE WAZ SLOOOWED DOOOWN and YELLLLED because otherwise the people in row 48F would absolutely not be caught up in the performance. But when I did small, theater-in-the-round acting (or television acting) almost all of the affectation was gone because of the intimacy of the setting. You could talk faster and more quietly, have smaller gestures, even subtle facial indicators. The physical distance between the performer and the audience alters the way the performance is received. A bombastic delivery on stage is the only thing that grabs people. The same performance on TV would be unwatchable. Or a joke.

Musical delivery is the same. Increased physical space, space of time, space of culture, space of medium, and space of relationship all break down those halo avenues of communication and the music is left alone with the tremendous burden of authentic communication. Modern culture has risen to that challenge by musically wearing all emotion on the sleeve and even pushing into a kind of hyper-emotional state. The question is, will conservative Christian musicians follow suit? How far down that road do they go? Or are there other options? One thing’s for sure, if fundamentalists keep recording music as though they were intimately live and are known to all the people in the audience, then their music will be less and less interesting or relevant.* For those of us listening to you while driving in traffic or running or working on our computers, you sound desperately lifeless. We’re in the third balcony and you’re whispering.

*There’s also a tangential issue that this same music is usually asked to live in a very one-dimensional emotional world. It’s as though the test for all conservative Christian music is: would this work being played in a southern lady’s parlor in the 1890s? The emotional tone must be Resolutely Pleasant. A steady diet of that, coupled with emotionless delivery, is… freaky.

$4 per gallon is wonderful, darn it!

Okay, so $4 per gallon is an absolute crime to be paying at the pump. I know. Some bad points:
Southwest plane crashed into gas station with cheap prices

  1. There’s lots of oil out there for us to tap. But we’re not doing it. Which makes us stuck in this situation.
  2. Using my precise, scientific method of making up statistics, there are 95% too many oil speculators (read: irresponsible gamblers) having fun driving up the world’s oil futures.
  3. Since gas prices and food prices are inextricably linked (because who the heck eats locally-grown food?), and since food and ethanol prices are inextricably linked (remember, you get ethanol from corn, sugar cane… starchy/sugary foods like that?), the wondrous Iowa gas alternative will always be the same price as the ball-and-chain Middle Eastern variety.
  4. Gas is now unbelievably expensive in third world countries.
  5. Food is now unbelievably expensive in third world countries. Remember that food is brought to them almost entirely by petrol-fueled ships. And since even the corn grown in their own land is being shipped out as ethanol, it drives food prices even higher.

But let’s look on the bright side for a minute.

In my horribly American-centered world, I’m stepping back and seeing that at least Americans have been increasingly interested in renewable energy. They’re actually starting to think SUVs maybe aren’t so great and that maybe a hybrid would be sexy. I’ve been wondering for years when this would happen. I kept thinking “Nothing moves unless the market moves it… So unless hybrids are bought in massive numbers, they’ll be an unattractive, expensive option. But they’ll never be bought in large numbers until they become an attractive, inexpensive option.”

Of course, there’s a problem with that reasoning. I forgot to include gas. Drive up the price of gas enough, and people are willing to take the hit on the front end to buy an ugly, expensive vehicle if they can save on gas later. Voila. $4 a gallon is the tipping point. Hybrids/Flex Fuel vehicles are everywhere.

Add to all this the recent Wall Street woes, and you have a pretty significant recipe for Americans paying more attention to how they spend their money. It’s possible that the days are gone when people just bought whatever was advertised and paid for it with credit. Joe Six Pack might actually restrain himself when thinking about driving, shopping, spending…

And once he’s learned to stop and breathe before he spends, he might also consider where some of the gas problems have come from. Like, say, the fact that China and India are being brought onto the gas grid. And they’re making our oil consumption look like a tea party. So there’s no way out of this. If everyone wants oil in the quantities they’ve been wanting it, it’s not going to last. We’ve got to look for other options.

And before you know it, you’ve got Americans thinking like global ecological citizens.

I know that the current economic crisis is affecting some people in really horrible ways… and I don’t doubt there’s a strong element of divine judgment in all this… But I do find an increased awareness of the social, economic, and ecological implications of our actions a cause for some rejoicing. In the middle of a recession, America just might find the time to stop being the single-seat sports car with “the engine that drives the world’s economy” and learn to be a stable mini-van. Not so sexy, but far more helpful.

Hovering over nearly everything I have written is the question of how a human economy might be conducted with reverence, and therefore with due respect and kindness toward everything involved. This, if it ever happens, will be the maturation of American culture.

Wendell Berry

Everything’s Bigger Than You Can Imagine (or, Why I Love Astronomy)

Back in my college days, when I first had access to the internet and started poking around on NASA’s then-new collection of freely available Hubble Satellite photos, my interest was first piqued in science. What I saw started a love affair with astronomy in particular, and science in general. The kinds of pictures I saw, and the numbers they were quoting for the size of some of these stars and galaxies and distances between them just blew my mind.

Several years have passed, and I’d like to think my appreciation of those images, facts, and figures has matured even further. And it’s in that spirit that I’d love to show you some things that I think will blow your mind.

Continue reading

Sort of a Sermon Recommendation: What is Romans 9 About?

For several years I’ve struggled with the implications of Reformed Theology. In the past 2 years, it’s progressed from arguing against Reformed Theology, to having conversations with people about why I can no longer agree that humans are the final arbiters of their election.

The passage that’s been the hammer that broke the rock in pieces, so to speak, was Romans 9. I talked with someone who said Romans 9 is about God’s sovereign choice over people groups, but had nothing to do with an individual’s salvation. That sounded fishy to me, so I began at Romans 8 and read through Romans 11 several times. The clear implication was that it was talking about an individual’s salvation.

See, here’s the context: if God gives huge covenant promises in Romans 8, how are we supposed to believe them if God’s Word has failed with respect to His covenant promises to Israel? Israel’s rejecting the Messiah and going to hell. How does that uphold God’s word to His chosen people? How can we Gentiles take God at His word if He can’t keep His word to the Jews?

Given that context, Paul argues that God’s word has not failed, and here’s why: not all Israel is Israel. In other words, there’s an ethnic Israel and a spiritual Israel. How can that be? Well, both Ishmael and Isaac were sons of Abraham (Jews, right?), but God chose to bless Isaac and reject Ishmael. But lest you think that was because of Hagar’s status as a slave, Rebekah’s twins, before they’d been born or done any good or evil, were likewise split. God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. Every time there have been children of Abraham (or his descendants), there has been a distinction between those who are mere biological children, and those who are children of the promise—real children of the covenant. In other words, it has always been the case that mere lineage was not a determining factor in salvation. God is able to make Jews from stones if He wants to (Matthew 3:8-9). Don’t presume that lineage guarantees salvation. Repent, or you will likewise perish.

I ask: has Paul just begun to randomly talk about the destiny of nations? Or is Paul supporting his assertion that within ethnic Israel is spiritual Israel? If he’s supporting his point that there are two Israels and ethnic Israel doesn’t guarantee placement within spiritual Israel, what context does that put the conversation in? The destiny of nations? Or salvation?

I say all this because it’s a critical context for understanding the rest of the chapter. I used to skip the beginning of the chapter because I didn’t understand why Paul was bringing Israel into the picture. But once you understand why he’s arguing on the track that he is, the entire chapter opens up. I would most of all encourage you to read Romans 8-11 and see the thought flow of Paul in those chapters. But I would also encourage you to download a sermon I listened to this week by John Piper called “What is Romans 9 About?”. It’s a very humble unfolding of the thought flow of Romans 9 and I would highly recommend it to everyone.

download this sermon

If you want a more complete exposition of Romans 9-11, listen to this series:

Help for Spiritual Slackers

I’ve tried over and over for several years to stick to a Bible-reading plan where I’d get through the Bible in a year. But somewhere around Leviticus or I Chronicles I stall and peter out.

ESV BibleThis year I found something that has really helped. It’s the ESV (English Standard Version) RSS feeds. There’s a whole set of different through-the-ESV-in-one-year feeds you can subscribe to that will send you each day’s Bible reading during the course of the year. There’s Chronological, Through the Bible, One Year Tract Bible, Outreach Bible, Every Day in the Word, and more. And each one lets you also listen to the selected passage so you could get your “reading” done while you’re getting ready. I was skeptical that I would hate reading on my computer (I normally do… I always prefer print), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how consistent this has helped me be.

Just get a handy RSS reader (I use Vienna on my Mac) and subscribe to one of the feeds.

Donation for Dummies

Voice of the Martyrs logo A little while back, I got some extra money and I decided to donate it to Voice of the Martyrs, a wonderful relief organization that mainly helps persecuted Christians in closed nations get food, shelter, legal help, and Bible literature. I went to their website and they have a kind of shopping cart where you can select where you want your money to go… you add different donations to your cart and then check out. Well, I saw “Sudan Action Packs” and it said something about buying packs of clothes, toiletries, etc. (+ Bible literature they add in-country) that would be sent to displaced people in Darfur. Cool, I thought, I’ll donate to those. So I spent my $25 on it and thought that was that. Someone in Darfur would now get clothes and the Gospel.

Nope. Someone in Georgia would get a couple of sealable plastic bags with mailing labels. Continue reading

Book Review: Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would by Chad Thompson

book cover I was asked by a friend to read Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would and tell him what I thought. I’m very glad he asked me to read it because, on the whole, it’s a fabulous book. The author, Chad Thompson, is an ex-gay who founded InQueery, an organization that tries to get the ex-gay message out to people, especially in public schools. Chad frequently speaks in churches about his journey out of homosexuality and this book is basically his presentation in written form with footnotes. You can watch Chad give a very good presentation at lovinghomosexuals.com (watch the video in the top right). It’s about an hour long but well worth the watch.

Chad’s approach to the homosexual position might anger some Christians. He argues, for instance, that “loving gay people requires us to fight for their right to live outside the closet without consequence, whether or not we agree with homosexuality.” This means allowing them to work, to live life, to receive benefits, all free from suspicion, restriction, and hatred. I’ll admit that when I read things like this I was a bit skeptical—not because I would ever advocate hating homosexuals, but because aren’t Christians supposed to lobby against them?

Chad argues that:

  1. People too often confuse homosexuals with homosexual activism. Most homosexuals are not part of a homosexual activism group. If you refer to all homosexuals as evil homosexual agitators, they have the right to refer to all Christians as friends of Fred Phelps.
  2. More importantly, we err when we think that a righteous response to homosexuals is simply “throwing the Bible in their face and calling it a day.”

I kept having these misgivings… “aren’t Christians are supposed to trumpet the message that homosexuals can change, that homosexuality is a choice—and a sinful one at that?” Chad had some good thoughts here. He argues that Jude 22 commands different approaches to how we minister to people. On some we have compassion, making a distinction. And on some we snatch as brands from the burning. There seem to be two approaches (at least) to how we present the Gospel. In fact:

Jesus had different messages for different people, and so should we. This is what Jesus meant by “casting your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). He was not saying that we should stop communicating God’s truth to unbelievers altogether; he was only saying that we should take care in discerning what we teach and to whom we teach it (also see Col. 4:5).

But Chad goes even further. He denies a staple belief among Christians: that homosexuality is a choice. But hear him out: Continue reading