Thursday, May 30, 2013

Soccer, Singing and Worship

One reason I'm increasingly drawn to football, or soccer if you prefer, is the purity and simplicity of the game. Two goals, a ball, and ninety minutes of pretty much continuous play without the incessant interruptions and time-outs of the American big three sports. This simplicity extends to football fan culture as well. For example, attend a match at any of the storied grounds of English football and you'll hear none of the amped up artificial noise and music that attends your average NBA or NFL game. Instead of Queen's "We Will Rock You!" blasting from the PA, you'll hear chants rooted in local history and tradition -- admittedly some of them obscene. And best of all you'll hear thousands of voices, mostly male, breaking into spontaneous song.

Don't take this the wrong way ladies, but there's something uniquely powerful when men sing together. Maybe because it rarely happens? In a culture where male stoicism is the norm, the football stadium (or the pub next to the stadium) has become the only place where men feel comfortable emoting and singing with abandon. Here in America groups like the American Outlaws bring their passion and voices whenever the U.S. National Team plays, and go to Portland or Kansas City and you'll experience an atmosphere as good as any you'll find in Europe or South America.

So what does this have to do with worship? The beautiful thing about the fan culture of the beautiful game is that it's mostly resisted the tendency toward artificial emotional manipulation which turns participants into observers. Unfortunately the church in America has been less successful at resisting this trend. Often congregational worship is more like a concert than a participatory expression of praise of the one being in the universe that's worthy of unadulterated adoration. Sometimes the practice of worship gets lost in the noise.

Here's a quote from James K.A. Smith's "Open Letter to Praise Bands" which should be required reading for worship leaders.

If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular "form of performance"), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there's nothing wrong with concerts! It's just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice--and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of "performing" the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can't hear ourselves sing--so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become "private," passive worshipers.

All this isn't to say that any particular worship style is the right one or that amplified instruments in church are bad. It is to say that the best instrument for making a joyful noise -- whether at a football match or church service --  is the human voice. As cool as it is hearing supporters singing in praise of a football club, it can't compare to hearing voices in the local church singing with passion in praise of Jesus.

While I'm on the subject -- check out this clip from Alistair Begg going off on why American men don't sing in church.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lewis and Berry

Blogger Jake Meador gives us this insightful and beautifully written piece on the commonalities between C.S. Lewis and Wendell Berry. Read it.

The Farmer and the Don

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Electronic Wendell Berry

Someone had the idea of combining Wendell Berry reading his poem "The Man Born to Farming" with a chilly piece of Electronica. Check it out.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The preface to idolatry

James K.A. Smith:

While we all purport to be praying to Jesus the Christ, risen and ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father, instead we end up praying to whatever domesticated version of Jesus suits our tastes and preferences. So everyone around the table starts to share: "I like to picture Jesus as . . . " This is the preface to all of our idolatries. And it functions as a debilitating filter when we read the Bible. The Scriptures are no longer revelation; they are simply a mirror. Instead of encountering Jesus there, we simply see ourselves.

Lord, save us from this. Lord, save me from this!

BTW this quote comes from the Foreword to what looks like a very worthwhile book.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chris Broussard makes a defense

Tuesday I posted on the controversy surrounding reporter Chris Broussard's comments on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" about NBA player Jason Collins coming out as a gay man -- the first male athlete in a major American sports league to do so. Yesterday Broussard went on NYC's Power 105.1 FM morning show to defend his views. It's apparent that the hosts are trying to bait Broussard into saying something scandalous and/or back-track on his beliefs. Broussard doesn't take the bait and beautifully demonstrates how to put 1 Peter 3:14-16 into practice.

Give this a listen.


Is there value in going through the motions?

Most Christians would agree that just showing up for worship and "going through the motions" isn't a good thing. Some might even say that it's better not to show up at all if this is the case. Better to be cold than lukewarm, right? Certainly the Great Command to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind implies worship that is fervent and fully engaged. Yet there are times when we don't experience that fervency, when we're not "feeling it", even as we, yes, go through the motions of singing, praying and participating in the practices of corporate worship.

One of the arguments made in Desiring the Kingdom is that there is value in going through the motions when it comes to worship and discipleship. Here I'm quoting author James K.A. Smith from a footnote on page 167.

While it [going through the motions] is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting of the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices (this is in the ballpark of the principle of ex opere operato). For instance, one will often hear testimonies of those raised in the church, but who have strayed from the path of discipleship, nevertheless caught short by the cadences of the Apostles' Creed or the catechism while immersed in hedonistic pursuits of pleasure. The rhythms of the liturgy come back to haunt them, sometimes calling them back to a life of more intentional discipleship. Or one finds that their imagination—the very way they construe the world—is fundamentally shaped by Christian practices.

Smith tries to get his readers to see that what we acknowledge to be true in many "secular" pursuits is also true for the Christian life. Go to any Major League ballpark an hour before game time and you'll see players going through the motions -- hitters taking batting practice, outfielders shagging fly balls and infielders taking grounders. Often there will be a casualness that belies the fact that something important is happening -- reflexes are being honed, muscles are being trained, so that later on when the game is on the line the third baseman will be able to scoop up a one-hopper and fire to first base without having to reflect on it. The hours Derek Jeter spends going through the motions is integral to being an All-Star shortstop, and while not an exact parallel, the same principle applies to Christians training to be fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.

All this points to a huge opportunity for Christian parents of young children to implant the seeds of the gospel, an opportunity we'll miss if we don't immerse our kids in the church every chance we get. As Smith writes in a key line from the book: ". . . the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world." (p. 68)

I believe if that "distinctly Christian understanding"—an understanding which is as much intuitive as it is reflective—is formed early, it will leave traces on the heart that can never be erased.