Archive for October, 2014

Why does church music suck?

Posted: October 21, 2014 by J in Church
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I’ve written before about the weakness of our church music. I’ve never felt very satisfied with this state of affairs. I can’t help feeling weak music in the church reflects badly on Christ. Surely we should be good at singing!

So I’m back gnawing at this bone again.

Part of our struggle with music is that it’s so hard to find songs that say the sort of things we’re wanting to say, with music that suits.

Here’s what I mean: we want songs that tell the story we want to tell – the Jesus story. We want songs that speak of the mission of Christ, of God’s heart for the poor and the weak and the outcast. We want songs that celebrate community. We want songs of rescue, repentance, release and restoration. We want songs that adore the Trinity. We want songs that express worship and joy and thankfulness towards our great God.

And we want good music (tunes) to sing them to.

Now for my confession:

The old hymns are generally good at expressing wonder and worship. But many of them don’t manage to tell the story. Or they tell a different story that ends up with death and heaven. In fact, much of the hymn tradition is shot through with Platonic distortions, and it’s so often a trade-off, singing a mix of rival and incompatible stories.

The kind of songs we sing in the Sydney evangelical scene, I find generally lacking in emotional depth, and not suited to the weighty task of drawing the people of God to the presence of the God of glory. They also have trouble telling the story. How many of our songs manage to celebrate the incarnation, or the resurrection of Jesus? Or the work of the Spirit? Only a few. In general the theology is truncated and formulaic in its expression. The songs massively overuse the metaphor of a price being paid – an image very rare in Scripture. There is rarely a clear expression of God’s Trinity. Also, the music is often bland and two-dimensional. No one is moved. No one goes away singing the tunes. And the words are – well, much too wordy. Too many words. Not enough poetry. Not much poetry at all. I often wince inwardly at the hamfistedness of the lyrics.

We’re terrified, too, of some of the things that music is best at doing. Like repetition, that most natural of all musical devices. You know, where you get a chance to meditate on an idea over time. Also we’re terrified of intimacy. We can just hear some alpha male in the congregation saying ‘So Jesus is our boyfriend?’ But friends, if we can’t get close to Jesus and have our hearts touched, and pour them out in love to him in music, then when on earth can we do it?

Then there’s the Hillsong stuff, and other middle-of-the-road Pentecostalish efforts. Overall I think it’s got the most to offer. Much of it is shallow, but there’s so much of it, and every now and then there’s a good one. They do God’s presence better than others. They do wonder and praise better too. They sometimes achieve an emotional depth that we can only envy. Also they sometimes hit on the story and bring it to life. And the music is usually not boring. Sometimes you even go away singing it to yourself. But it’s still pretty limited, overall.

The churches I’ve been to that do singing/music the best are largely skimming the cream of this last category. Hmm.

I’d love to discover that there’s a great source of songs that we actually want to sing, that express what we’re on about, and uplift and inspire us, and stretch and challenge us.

Can anyone help us with this?

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Mark Driscoll resigns

Posted: October 18, 2014 by J in Church, Pastoral issues
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The news has come through that Driscoll, pastor and founder of the Mars Hill Church, Seattle and of the Mars Hill brand of churches, has stood down from his leadership role and severed his connection with the church.

This follows months of turmoil in which numerous staff have resigned or been laid off, attendance has halved, and many have called for Driscoll’s to put his leadership on hold.

The issues seem to be to do with leadership style, personality and manner, and the church’s governance more generally. It seems there’s a high level of control exercised over church activities  from the top, and a low level of participation in decision making for the members. Also it is claimed that many leadership matters are shrouded in secrecy – such as how much the leaders get paid.  Driscoll himself has been criticised for being domineering and destructive towards those he works with.

There is no suggestion of sexual sin or financial fraud.

Acts 29, the church planting movement Driscoll inspired and helped found, has lately severed ties with him and with Mars Hill.

Driscoll is known for having popularised a kind of muscular Calvinism that engaged confidently and positively with culture. Culturally progressive meets theologically ultra-traditional. The appeal of this unusual combination among young adults has produced crops of cool young big-R Reformed Christians who drink beer and love the inner city.

For those of us who see megachurches and church franchises as deeply unhealthy animals, it is no great surprise to hear claims that the leaders who built those unhealthy structures are themselves prone to unhealthy practices and relational patterns. Be surprising if they weren’t, really.

There is no doubt that Driscoll has been tireless in preaching the gospel of Jesus and growing churches. Nor that he has been an inspirational figure to many. I reckon he’s had some great things to say about mission for Jesus. His comments about our diocese when he came to Sydney were well worth listening to. He’s got a sharp mind and has thought deeply. He forms his own ideas and isn’t afraid to shock or offend. Driscoll has a lot to offer.

However, there is another side to him, as revealed in his obscene, misogynistic and unhinged-sounding online rants, which he doesn’t seem to have ever explained or repented of. Those posts have ‘mental health troubles’ written all over them.

Given Mars Hill’s culture of secrecy at the top, the details about Driscoll’s departure may never be known. Many of the staff recently laid off have had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

We sincerely hope that the Mars Hill Church can survive this crisis and move on in healthier directions.

4. Postmodernism has opened the door to radical individualism.  It is paradoxical that we could live in McWorld and yet be individualists – and yet it is undeniably true. It works like this. Postmodernism tends to undermine any larger story or cause that I might identify with. Tolerance is not a cause, just a low-grade ideal. There is no shared bigger picture or larger group that gives meaning to my life and yours.

Trouble is, this dynamic doesn’t stop when it gets down to the level of local community – it keeps on destroying the narratives that hold people together.  We learned it from Inception: if an idea is planted deep enough it will control your whole life. If big stories are suspect and relative, then smaller ones are too, and in fact any story.  In the end the only meaning I can access is the meaning I construct for my own life.

In which case there can be no real ‘us’. For the thing that used to maintain ‘us’ was the narrative. It’s only a short step from this to ‘life is all about me.’ The large metanarratives which postmodernism attacked did not break down into local narratives – they broke down into the individual story. Nor is there any narrative we are following that might give much importance to my neighbour’s life. This leaves radical individualism as the only available option.

The results have been catastrophic. We have seen our communities break down to the point where there is very little left. We no longer know our neighbours. Nowadays when people die, they are lucky if anyone notices. Or cares.

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In finishing, let me say I’m no big fan of modernism either. But in exorcising that demon, seems to me postmodernism has left the house swept and available for seven even worse demons to take up residence.

I am looking for something better.

How post-modernism is failing us – 3

Posted: October 14, 2014 by J in Theology

3. Postmodernism has promoted greed. Economic imperatives now drive nearly everything in our world. Money is the only good – the only god. Other values are felt to be lacking in substance. In the absence of any more compelling story, life is now about acquisition of wealth. Those who are successful in the game find the temptation to squeeze the poor, irresistible. In short, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Really. Over fifty years the gap has yawned alarmingly. The poor have children who are poorly educated and remain poor.

A core postmodern value has been tolerance – leaving people alone to think and live the way they want to. But from the vantage point of the 21st century we can now see that tolerance is largely something the rich want. It is a stabilising concept, reinforcing the status-quo so that the wealthy can go on enriching themselves without threat. Tolerance has too often turned out to mean you behaving yourself in the public, political sphere, while in the economic sphere we keep on exploiting you. The rich have been very happy to tolerate the poor – as long as they don’t have to do anything for them.

How postmodernism is failing us – 2

Posted: October 13, 2014 by J in General, Theology

2. Postmodernism has proved too weak to counter the overwhelming force of the globalising corporate machine. There are large industries spending billions of dollars to make sure you buy their products. Most of us are putty in their hands: we don’t even notice it’s happening. But in the end, we all watch the same movies, read the same books, listen to the same music. Follow the same fashion trends. Wear the same brand clothes. Eat the same brand foods. Look for the same logos. Our children learn the same hip hop dance moves to the same songs. We may rebel against the mainstream and embrace ‘alternative’, but the industry is quite capable of taking up ‘alternative’ and packaging it for mass consumption.

And none of this stuff comes from anywhere near you. All these products are global. We are having a homogenised ‘global’ (=American) culture pushed on us, pushed hard every day. Where I live there is very very little left that is local. We live much of our lives in McWorld. And what’s more, people have learned to love it! We have been homogenised.

Diversity now means I can choose between 326 different kinds of breakfast cereal – though we all buy them from the same big two supermarkets – and people who live 4000 km away have the same selection. That’s not what the postmodernists had in mind when they extolled the virtues of local diversity. I’m not saying PM is to blame for all this. But it has been the reigning social doctrine presiding over the large-scale destruction of local cultures. So it seems to me it’s turned out to be a fairly empty rhetoric.

How post-modernism is failing us

Posted: October 11, 2014 by J in Theology

As I watch the West trying to grapple with the East and repeatedly getting no purchase, the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘postmodernism’.

I’ve grown up with postmodern ways of thinking. It’s the air I breathe. Diversity is good. Uniformity is bad. Yep. Local is good, global is suspect. Yep. McDonalds is the enemy. Yep. No one can tell anyone how they should view the world or what they should value. Coercion is bad. Tick. A vision for a world of enlightened and peaceful co-existence governed benignly by representatives of the people, where everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. I like it.

But I have to say I’m getting pretty disillusioned about the whole thing. The vision seems to be falling apart. I’m thinking postmodernism is not working well for us as a guide to living in the 21st century.

Over the next few days I want to suggest a few major ways postmodernism seems to have failed us.

1. Postmodern’s key virtue – tolerance – has not proved to be strong enough to curb our hatred of the other.  Postmodern tolerance calls on me to not attack or spit on those who are different from me – but this is not really asking very much. Not asking enough in fact. We humans have a natural fear and contempt for those different from us. And that disdain can happily lie below the surface most of the time. I can walk past (or more likely drive past), and look down on you, without any confrontation arising. Just because you are inferior or stupid or unpleasant, doesn’t mean I have to fight with you. I can just keep my distance. I am willing to tolerate your existence. After all, you probably bake my bread and stack the shelves of my supermarket. Actually it can make me feel pretty good when I think how much more I earn than you. I am less happy for you to live in my street. And I am not at all happy for you to marry my daughter. This is how tolerance functions.

It is only at times of stress that contempt for the other will flare up into open hatred. If I feel threatened by you. Or you take my job. That’s when the spitting starts. And the violence. Which is just what is happening across the Middle East at present – and in Sydney. Tolerance turns out to have been a thin veneer that left our hearts unchanged, our racism and sense of superiority unchallenged. We never learnt to understand the others. Never learned to connect with them or like them. We never learned to see the world through their eyes, or empathise. Tolerance never asked us to do any of those things. It never asked us to love. 

And if we haven’t learned to love, we will still hate. And that’s what we are hearing from a large section of society at the present: hatred and fear towards a minority group. And there is no story, no consideration postmodernism can put forward into the public arena, that will persuade them to stop. The bonds that tie postmodern society together are proving to be quite flimsy.