Finding Balance in Worship

Naturally, we must submit our emotional expressions to the Lordship of Christ, just as we are to submit our minds and our intellect to the Lordship of Christ. That does not mean refusing to exercise our emotions or our intellect, but to exercise them to the glory of God

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / grace1221
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / grace1221

Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise in the congregation of the godly ones. Let Israel be glad[1] in his Maker; let the sons of Zion rejoice[2] in their King. Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre. For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation. Let the godly ones exult[3] in glory; let them sing for joy[4] on their beds. (Psalm 149:1-5)

I have been thinking about an article I read recently: Is Your Church Worship More Pagan Than Christian? by Todd Pruitt. He questions the popular Christian music and worship culture on the basis that it exalts music to a sacramental position and musicians to priestly status without biblical foundation for the emphasis. He claims it promotes feelings over doctrinal soundness and experience over preaching the Word of God. These are valid concerns.

I agree with Todd Pruitt on nearly every point, yet the article and the one that followed, (Is Your Worship Christian or Pagan? (7 Tests)), leave me scratching my head a bit. Continue reading “Finding Balance in Worship”

Do We Stand in the Way of the Prodigal

A look at the prodigal son parable through the medium of music.


I am compelled by a phenomenon that I see in modern culture. Maybe it is not a new phenomenon, but the current expression of it is new (because it is happening now). The video above is an example: Jesus, Jesus, is a haunting ballad of the unbeliever by Noah Gunderson. Continue reading “Do We Stand in the Way of the Prodigal”

Devotional Artifice and Didactic Crap Reprise

Devotional Artifice and Didactic Crap. I wrote this article in response to statements made by Sufjan Stevens and the fodder they were for an uninformed, shallow critique of music that more overt Christians make couched in a fawning review of Carrie and Lowell, Stevens new album.

Maybe there is something to fawn over, as this article in Christianity Today suggests. The article suggests the following options: 1) accept him as “one of our own” who has found the key to the inside of popular art culture (a response that Stevens would pointedly protest); 2) reject him as one who does not want to be associated with “us”; 3 or) worship at the feet of the altar of his art. I do not claim these are the only options, but they seem the most obvious.

Is there another way to look at this? For the Christ follower who cannot easily dismiss the invitation to pick up the cross and follow, is there a compromise? Is there a way to honor God above all else without compromising the art? Is there a way of making uncompromising art without making an idol of it?

Sufjan Stevens has written:

To objectify art is to measure its commercial value and squander its transcendental powers of benevolence. Reciprocity demeans art; or, rather, it functions to incarcerate its powers, to judge it for its charity. Like putting Mother Teresa on trial, or in prison, for the crime of compassion. On the contrary, perfect art, as a perfect gift (without ulterior motive, without gain, without compensation) courageously gives itself over to the world asking nothing in return.

Do I engage with my work as a father cultivates his child, with loving-kindness, with fierce enrichment, with awe and wonder, with unconditional love, with absolute sacrifice? I make this my impossible objective.

Is art transcendental in and of itself? Must art be without ulterior motive to be pure? Should art demand the unconditional love and absolute sacrifice of the artist? I am having difficulty finding the harmony with faith in a Holy God. I have not head the album yet, but I assume it is everything I have read.

For another take, here is an interview with Bono.

Devotional Artifice and Didactic Crap

If the point of these statements is to get our attention, then it worked.

Vintage 1960s guy posingThe statements were attributed to Sufjan Stevens in an article written by David Roark in the Atlantic: How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music.

They got my attention, but they struck a sour note with me.

Sufjan Stevens claims to be informed by his Christian faith. I am not here to judge him, though he seems to have no problem judging others. Implicit in the statements is more than an opinion about art: he implies deceptive motive. “Artifice” meaning a ruse, trick, pretense, lie, slight of hand, play…. Ploy for what?

I suppose I should not be overly critical of Stevens. His words, though razor sharp, may have been taken out of context. The sentiment that the writer seems to capture, however, I have heard before, and the writer exploits it: “Christian music” is a joke; it is not art; it is sold like elixir from a hawker’s cart at a garish carnival; it is a sellout to …. What exactly?

The subtitle of the article is this: “The genre has had a bad reputation since the 1960s [sic], but the singer-songwriter succeeds by focusing on aesthetics over evangelism.” The real point of the article is that somehow, amazingly, by virtue of being a “real” artist, Sufjan Stevens has succeeded, in spite of being “Christian”, while most others have miserably failed. Sufjan Steves, apparently, is to be praised for not selling his artistry out.

Not selling out to who? The article pretty accurately points out that popular culture is not buying it. The people attempting to enter through the narrow gate are the people buying Christian music. The people taking the broad, wide path are not interested.

The “devotional artifice” is not a golden cow. The author even acknowledges that with his South Park allusion. If money is the object, there are better avenues. The same is true for fame, though being a big fish in a small pond does have some advantages. Still, the broad, wide path is a much more lucrative field.

If success means getting noticed by popular culture, then Christian music is certainly failing – the devotional artifice is not working. But, what if that were not the point?

Is success being true to one’s artistic vision? The author holds Stevens up as a golden example of one who has not compromised his artistic vision to be used as a “mere tool of evangelism, or as propaganda.” So, the sellout is to God? To the Gospel?

The author uses examples from the 1960’s and 1970’s, like  Larry Norman, who was a rock and roller who “got saved” and started playing the same music with Christian lyrics. Yes, that was the Jesus People Movement, but that was a long time ago. The author has pretty obviously not researched his subject very well.

The proof that Christian music is “bad” is that it has not made a “footprint in the realm of popular culture”. If popular culture is the measure of good, he is right. (Do you see a theme here?) He probably does not realize that  his criticism might be taken as a compliment, a confirmation of success.

For many a Christian artist, to be accepted by popular culture and rejected by the Church would be failure indeed. It all depends on who is the intended audience. Most of the “Christian artists” are making music for the Church. If they are making music their audience wants to hear, are they not successful? That “didactic crap” motivates, inspires and uplifts many people. That is why many Christian musicians call what they do a “music ministry”.

I would not expect someone who has not been touched by the Spirit of the Living God to understand that. For many people, it would matter little how good the music is; they could not get past the message. The point of “Christian music” is really the message after all. I can understand why a music lover who is not a God lover would have little interest in Christian music.

I am not judging Sufjan Stevens, though he oddly seems to be judging brothers and sisters who express the same faith (albeit a bit more boldly and directly). I am not sure why he “doesn’t get it”. The audience he seems to have chosen are those who seem to value art first (at least that is what I infer from his comments and the article). That being the case, I am not sure at all why he would measure music meant for a different audience by the same standard. It seems obvious to me that “Christian artists” differ in that respect. Their art is meant for a different purpose.

Art for art’s sake is a popular notion. It is not a notion informed by Christian faith. I would call that idolatry. That does not mean that music or other forms of art cannot be or should not be beautiful, but beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. The “heavy-handed” message of Christian artists that the author of the article finds “bad” is often not seen as beautiful by popular culture. For some, however, it is a beautiful daily reminder of salvation, God’s goodness and glory and hope.

The author laments the divide between faith and art that he does not see in centuries past. I do not think faith has moved. Popular culture has moved, and the art with it.The author’s observation that “today’s disdain [for Christian art] is a fairly recent phenomenon” is certainly an accurate statement, but that should not motivate faith to move with the popular culture anymore than tropical bird should fly to the arctic because other birds are going that way.

The author suggests that faith should be more stealthy, but I am reminded of Jesus’s words that we are to be cities on a hill. We are not to hide our light (faith) under  bushel. When faith is obvious, many will reject it. In fact, most will. Popular culture is tolerant of faith as long as we keep faith to ourselves. That sentiment informs this article.

Meanwhile, Stevens feels absolved “from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do” by focusing on the art which he believes his faith inhabits. I wonder where worship fits into that worldview. “Religious content” is not something to be imposed, though it is often perceived that way. I suppose it is either embraced or it feels like an imposition. Naturally, where it is seems like an imposition, the person feeling imposed upon will simply move on. And, so it seems to me, is the reaction of popular culture to “Christian Music” – but the reaction really has little to do with art.

I do not, personally, like “popular”, kitschy music that seems to draw the masses like some pied piper. What the author calls kitschy (Christian music) is much preferred to me than what I hear on popular music stations. I appreciate Christian music for what it is and listen to it to be uplifted, edified (as “we” say) and even to worship God through it.

I do like music, many forms of music, both “secular”and “Christian”. I tend off the beaten path. I genuinely love the blues. I have spent several years digging deeply into Indie music and retracing steps from decades ago and going down rabbit trails I did not explore the first time through. I still like what some people would call, apparently with a sneer, “Christian music”; but then, I embrace the message, and it resonates in me.

The Music of Love, the Story of Johnny Swim

Silhouette of Couple Playing Guitar at Sunset


Music is a powerful thing. Perhaps, nothing captures human emotion like music. The theme of love runs through music, as it does with all forms of art. The intimate love of a couple is one of the most powerful and life changing emotions a person can experience. The intensity of being in love may be unmatched by any other human emotion, even the love of a parent for a child.

I muse on this as I listen to music this morning. One of the most intimate of modern musical muses is JohnnySwim. The kitschy and unlikely name belies a husband and wife combination making some of the best music today. They also seem madly in love with each other. Beautiful voices. Smooth harmonies. Palpable emotions. Powerful songs. It is catchy music, but it is not pop. I would call it indie, but folksy.

Their story is as compelling as their music. She is the daughter of Donna Summer, the disco queen. Her first CD as young girl was Vince Gil. He is Cuban. His father was a preacher. They saw each other for the first time across a room in college. She pegged him as a ladies man, out of her league. She avoided him for four years. He saw her and said to himself, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

Take some time to listen to their music: Diamonds and Live While We’re Young are anthems of youth and passion and love.

  • “We are the fire from the sun. We are the light when the day is done. We are the brave, the chosen ones. We are the diamonds rising out of the dust.”
  • “Make no mistake. Live while we’re young. Chase down the sun. Hands off the brake. We can die when we’re done. Let’s live while we’re young.”

They portray that intimate, heady love that is the thing dreams are made of, the happily ever after feeling that books and movies attempt to capture on the screen and poets captured in words. It is a love that everyone yearns for, but often seems just out of reach. Listen to Take the World and You and I:

  • [T]hey can write stories
    They can sing songs
    But they don’t make fairy tales
    Sweeter than ours
  • Tell me where we’re gonna plant these seeds
    I come climbing up your apple tree
    Can you take me to your garden please

Then there is the song, Over. It is as beautiful as it is haunting. “Wake me up the dream I had is over”.

The truth is that the Disney kind of love really does not exist. It is too good to be true. It is an illusion. It cannot be sustained, at least not in the passionate, head over heels kind of way. “[Y]our love is on fire on mountain tops not down with me….” is recognition of the illusion that many people fall for. They want to stay on the mountain top forever, but nothing really grows on mountain top, as beautiful as it is there. It is not a place a person can live indefinitely, even if you manage to reach its heights.

Many people chase a mirage that always seems to evaporate, and then they chase it again in a new direction – it seems always just out of reach.   Poets and lovers have been trying to capture the essence of that elusive pot of gold for thousands of years. Even when love is found, it is fleeting, “like a shooting star” as the Bad Company tune goes.

Maybe that is because “we are all just dust in the wind”. From dust to dust we live. Even the strong, lifelong love that precious few are able to sustain with any degree of conviction and earnestness cannot maintain the original intensity. The 50, 60 or 70 years it lasts, is like the bloom of a single flower in the field of human history. It is a brief glory.

Is there a love that does not fade like a shooting star? Is there a love that rises above the dust? Is there a flower that does not lose its bloom?

We instinctively “know” there is something more. Musicians and poets have written about it for centuries. The longing is real.

Would we have any sense of “it” if there was no essence of “it” to be sensed? And if the essence that we sense is real, it must exist in some other realm than this human existence; it must grow out of a different soil.

Jeremiah the prophet said, “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jer. 17:13) He also predicted that one day “living water would flow out of Jerusalem.” (Jer. 14: 8) He said that, without God, we are like broken cisterns that cannot hold water, the living water that God offers to us. (Jer. 2:13)

Jesus was/is that living water. (John 4:10) Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:38) In Revelations, John saw a vision in which he was told that God will lead the people who follow him to streams of living water and wipe every tear away. (Rev. 7:17)

I believe this living water is the love that we sense and that we long for. This is love that is available to us from God. It is love that we only see through a glass darkly in this mortal coil we inhabit, but it is a love that grows in intensity rather than fading. It is a love that, indeed, lasts forever and quenches the thirst so that one will never thirst again. All real love is a subset of this Great Love, and divorced from it no love can be sustained. God is this Love. (1 John 4:8)

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C.S. Lewis famously said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we are made for another world.”

MICHAEL GUNGOR On The Problem With The Christian Music Industry

Some food for thought from a “creative Christian artist”. A bit of a rant, but I think he has a point. I, too, like authentic music. Sometimes happy and sappy is good. We need to be uplifted sometimes, but I definitely tend toward the art of music and like the creative element. As a point in fact, I like the Michael Gungor Band and encourage everyone to check them out.

AWAKEN GENERATION

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SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT !!!!

READ MICHAEL GUNGOR’S FOLLOW UP BLOG TO HIS POST ‘THE PROBLEM WITH THE CHRISTIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY !!!

 

Date: Monday, December 9, 2013

Hey Everyone,

As promised earlier, after the incredible buzz around his blog post below in the past week (there have been more than 360,000 views of this blog post in the past 7 days) Michael Gungor expressed to me a desire to write a follow-up blog post to this original post he wrote almost 2 years ago.

I am excited to announce that Michael emailed me his follow-up blog post that he just finished two days ago, and you can read it immediately, by clicking on the link below.

Michael Gungor: A Follow-Up To My Blog Post On The Problem With The Christian Music Industry

 

Regards,

Hervict

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When you are in a touring band, there is a lot of time that is…

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