21 July 2008

Pimp my tunes

Invader Christian -- Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Once a person has come to faith in Christ, he sets out on the path of holiness, to conform to the model of Christ, to wage a constant battle against the temptations of Satan, to acquire the Holy Spirit and to live a life that prepares him to be with God in His Eternal Kingdom….Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas
Of course, that last posting on this subject raises the question of what is the purpose of Christian music if not to evangelize and do outreach. How can a song which is not “evangelical” nonetheless be Christian? It’s an important question. Otherwise we might be justified in saying that there really should be no more difference between Christian art and non-Christian art than there is between Christian plumbing and non-Christian plumbing.

Consider a simple emendation which might make Rush’s “Subdivisions” (right click on the link and select either "Open in New Tab" or "Open in New Window" to listen) a Christian song, not an evangelistic song, but truly Christian.

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...

Truly, the only thing it would take is a stanza to the effect that “subdivisions” are the result of the ontological change – the perversion of “the whole order of nature in heaven and earth” (Calvin, Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. 1.5) – which occurred as a result of Adam’s sin (see e.g., Romans 5.12; 8.20, 22). It seems too easy, I know. But consider the single, minor change John Osborne required to make his play, Luther a twentieth century play. The play is very fairly accurate, historically – right up to the end. But then, at the very end of the play, the head of Luther’s monastery comes to visit him and his family, and asks him, “Martin, do you know you are right?” Anyone the least bit knowledgeable of the Reformation, should know how Luther would have answered that question. Despite the historical facts (like, for example, that Luther lived out the remainder of his days under the death sentence), Osborne has Luther reply, “Let’s hope so.”

So if that’s all it takes to make Martin Luther a twentieth century man, making “Subdivisions” a Christian song by the aforementioned alteration doesn’t sound so incredible. Now, bear in mind I’m not talking about some CCM artist doing a cover of “Subdivisions”, with the suggested addition. What I’m getting at is that right now there are only two ways in which anything like “Subdivisions” could be a Christian song. First, for some twenty-something Christian artist to cover it, like someone recently did of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” , I believe. The other way, would be (in some possible world in which “Subdivisions” was not written and performed by Rush) for some Christian contemporary musician to write “Subdivisions” without, of course, the aforementioned emendation, which would earn him many accolades. In other words, he’d write an abortive Christian song and be rewarded for his efforts by an adoring Christian public which could not help but admire his social conscience. I say “abortive” because a song like “Subdivisions” without the connection to the ontological and anthropological implications of sin would be as “secular” as “Subdivisions” already is.

This is important because I don’t think the test of whether a song is Christian or not is whether it sings well in church on Sunday. (That would be the case if I thought we lived in a two-storey universe: Christian music would be limited to music one can sing in church, where for a few hours on Sunday we can pretend we are in the upper-storey, in front of the throne of grace.) However, a song like “Subdivisions” without the gospel connection (and yet at the same time without being “evangelical”) is the statement, the exposition of a problem with no adumbration of a solution, or at least the cause of the problem – our original estrangement from God. Separated from God we are estranged from each other, and also from ourselves. Some types of enforced conformity are attempts – weak attempts – at removing at least some sense of this estrangement.

In that light consider the irony, on a Christian view, of these lines:

Conform or be cast out
Here one group of humans equally estranged from God as everyone else commands, and demands, conformity to its self-selected, arbitrary norms, its self-selected, arbitrary mores. They set themselves up as God, to whose image all must “conform or be cast out”. On a Christian view this is a real problem: it is a form of idolatry. How does it come to be a problem on a modern, or even a post-modern view? On both of those views man is normal; so then are “subdivisions”. This estrangement is normal, and shouldn’t need fising. In other words, if these “subdivisions” do not constitute an abnormality then why complain? It’s just the way it is.

Lest you think I’m just down on everyone, I do just happen to think that some of the best, explicitly Christian lyrics have always been written by U2. Think of one of my all-time favorites, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (right click, etc., to listen).

I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away
How long...
How long must we sing this song?
How long? how long...

cause tonight...we can be as one

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
Puts my back up against the wall

Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday bloody sunday...)
(all right let’s go!)

And the battles just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday

How long...
How long must we sing this song?
How long? how long...

cause tonight...we can be as one

Sunday, bloody sunday (tonight)
Sunday, bloody sunday (tonight)
(come get some!)

Wipe the tears from your eyes
Wipe your tears away
Wipe your tears away
I wipe your tears away
(sunday, bloody sunday)
I wipe your blood shot eyes
(sunday, bloody sunday)

Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday, bloody sunday)
Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday, bloody sunday)
(here I come!)

And its true we are immune
When fact is fiction and tv reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die

The real battle yet begun (sunday, bloody sunday)
To claim the victory jesus won (sunday, bloody sunday)

Sunday bloody sunday
Sunday bloody sunday...
The song drips with allusions to the Psalms. But there’s more than that; it connects with the (abnormal) human condition as a Christian sees it (i.e., abnormal because all is not as God created it). “The trench is dug within our hearts/And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart” – in other words, humans estranged, alienated from each other as the ontological result of the corruption wrought by Adam’s broken fellowship and loss of union with God. “The real battle yet begun…/To claim the victory Jesus won” – in a song written as a response to The Troubles, in Northern Ireland. Here you have not only a song which expounds upon a problem, like Rush’s “Subdivisions”, but you also have the cause of the problem, estrangement, that “trench…dug within our hearts” (all of our hearts), as well as adumbration of solution, “the victory Jesus won”, that victory which restores us to union with God through Jesus Christ and sends the Holy Spirit into the world. Perhaps this, subliminally, is why of all the songs written about The Troubles, U2’s contribution is the most famous and most covered.

Getting back to the topic of motif, what separates U2’s music from much of contemporary Christian music is that most CCM, dominated by adherents to dispensational theology and thus expecting the imminent end to the church age, has been geared more towards evangelism-by-music. Groups like U2, on the other hand, while not unconcerned about the gospel and, clearly, explicitly Christian, are not trying to evangelize anyone through their music. But what they do musically, they do as Christians. (More than likely this is due to the fact that Roman Catholic theology is not dispensational.)

Whether Christian contemporary music is mediocre or not, what seems to be missing in a lot of cases is a sense of what the purpose of music is. As I’ve already mentioned, there has been for a long time the notion that its purpose should be evangelism. To evangelize means, in a very real sense, to teach. When I think of the possibility of teaching anything by song I remember something I read of T. S. Eliot on whether poetry can be used to teach religion. He didn’t think that it could be used as fruitfully as more typical methods of instruction. What he thought poetry could do with regard to religion was teach how it feels to believe the religion. Think about that with reference to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”. The Troubles are seen, and feelings described, from a Christian perspective. What would “Subdivisions” look like if written to describe the same feelings from a Christian perspective?

There is another possibility. The purpose of Christian music could be the same as most other, non-Christian arts: simply to entertain. The entertainment is Christian, of course, but it’s still entertainment. But I wonder if we really need to be entertained. Hmmmm. What would someone like John Chrysostom say?

As a Calvinist, and a Presbyterian, it’s easy for me to respond to the question of the purpose of Christian music by saying that it’s to glorify God, which is the purpose of a human being. Makes sense: if the chief end of man is to glorify God, then man’s music should do so as well. But too often this leads to vain speculation about whether – and how – this or that piece of music will glorify God. “To glorify God” is a bit over-broad.

One wouldn’t know that the same Confession of Faith which claims God’s glory as the “chief end of man” also tells us how we may glorify Him: it’s in the Scriptures; we need not speculate. (Well, not as much as one might like to think.) Not only that, the Confession also includes the enjoyment of God forever as man’s chief end. That very Confession, as most others, also teaches that one of the benefits Christians have both in this life and the next is union with God.

So rather than evangelize unbelievers and entertain believers, perhaps Christian music, whatever its style, should seek aggressively and explicitly to help believers enjoy God, glorify Him and live in union with Him, even here on earth. Even then, it need not be cast as something that “sings well” in church. After all, we are to enjoy Him, glorify Him, and live in union with Him at church and away from church.

Of course, that said, we might need to take note of the fact that glorifying God, enjoying Him and living in union with Him is not always entertaining, not always pleasant. Just read the psalms.

Perhaps the most we can say about the purpose of Christian arts (most particularly music, in this context) is that it is created by Christians and addressed primarily to other Christians. (Or, at least, most easily and properly assessed and appreciated by other Christians.) Christians are people in process of sanctification. To put that same idea in a form which non-Protestants might use (and which, in fact, Archbishop Dmitry does use), Christians are those who, having come to faith in Christ, have set out on the path of holiness and seek to conform to the model of Christ, waging a constant and vigilant battle against the temptations of Satan in the power of the Holy Spirit and living a life that prepares them for life with God in His eternal kingdom. Christian art ought to be art by people who are on that path. And it should inspire, uplift, and encourage others who are on that path.

[T]here is no sanctification without union with Christ….-- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. III.14.4

Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God.-- Vladimir Lossky.

Part 5


About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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