Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Gift of Sacred Music

I do not love our Lord enough, I do not respect his will for me sufficiently by any means and my life cannot speak of exuberant, ushering or minute accessory devotion to God. But when I am not so selfish, not so petulantly preoccupied with my world and instead, am yielding in some manner and degree to God’s Spirit and find myself worshiping him in music, it is exactly that, with and by music intended for the worship of our Lord, both in lyrical and musical composition, which I desire, seek and utilize.

This gift of sacred or spiritual music is well documented in Scripture though no treatise on all of its properties and boundaries is given so that scant biblical wisdom is available, right? Au contraire, while God has given us some direct revelation on spiritual music he has also left us, as he has with so many things, the requirement that we use spiritual wisdom and sense to identify the guiding principles which help us construct a worthy theology and practice of sacred music.

The distinction between sacred or spiritual music and secular music are its objectives and its anecdotes, but primarily its objectives.

Secular Music (non-sacred)

Secular music, simply put, has every objective but one, namely that which is spiritual. Therefore, it has the primary property of human entertainment as its objective (Lest someone confuse the word entertainment with amusement you should be clear, they are not synonyms. Amusement is a form of entertainment. That is, amusement is but one facet of entertainment. Entertainment may involve intellectual exercises such as patriotic music or an opera and is much wider in its meaning). Ultimately, secular music meets a human desire or interest. Now these desires are often quite legitimate and there is no prohibition against meeting such human interests through musical entertainment so there is no argument here.

Sacred/Spiritual Music

On the other hand, sacred or spiritual music has as it objective none but one, namely to build up spiritually. It has a sole objective, spiritual edification. Notice the contrast? One has many objectives the other a single objective. God, through Paul instructs us (Ephesians 5:19):

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;

This seems to baffle some people and for whatever reason I do not know but it is rather plain for many others. The music we use to edify one another has a spiritual objective, not one of human entertainment.

* A note. One could use the term “spiritual entertainment” if they wish to include the word entertainment but it would require the understanding of entertainment - if one uses the novel term “spiritual entertainment” - not to be one of amusement but of edification. This is why we avoid using that word, here, because the word edification is far more superior and is without the unnecessary baggage and misdirecting implications.

“So, What if I End Up With Human Entertainment as Part Of My Experience With Sacred Music?”

There is a word which will benefit you upon learning its meaning and use; it is the word, anecdotal. Anecdotal refers to things that are related to something but are not primarily in view. Let me give you an example:

God’s church, the body of Christ, is made up of people from all nations (races, ethnicities and cultures) but these are anecdotal facts. That is, Christians relate to each other spiritually with Christ as their spiritual DNA and with the doctrines of Christ. Churches are not to be built around human cultures or DNA (race/ethnicity) but around Christ. Who and what with regard to race/ethnicity/culture is present in a local body is simply anecdotal, not primary or an objective of the church per the Word of God. As well, whatever these anecdotes may be in a church, they should serve the primary (Christ), not the other way around.

This is the way it is with music. If sacred or spiritual music possesses a property which you find humanly entertaining, this is not forbidden but it must not be primary, it should be anecdotal. But as well and again, as an anecdotal element it should serve the primary objective, not subdue it so that it (the primacy of spirituality) is lessened by its use. This requires maturity and discernment, not sincerity.

So if someone is sincere and wishes to call their music (which is designed primarily to entertain) “spiritual music”, all their sincerity in the world does not change its category. It is still what it is, primarily human entertainment and not genuinely sacred or spiritual music. You must be able to distinguish between primary and anecdotal.

“OK, but What if the Music I am Listening to, Which is Entertaining, Ends Up Having a Spiritual Element Which Evokes a Spiritual Reaction?”

Again, the principle of the anecdotes guides us. What is the objective of the music? If it is primarily to entertain then we know what its design is for, entertainment. Its spiritual element is anecdotal. That is - while as a property of the song - the spiritual considerations are not primary therefore it should remain what it is, a song for entertainment with spiritual anecdotes.

So we do not deny that a song composed for entertainment can have properties of spiritual consideration, we simply do not use such music for or categorize it as sacred or spiritual music because, as stated before, it is for entertainment purposes primarily. And this distinction must be consistently observed for any real demarcation and assignment of music in our lives and its real use.

The Example of the Comedian

Suppose you go to a comedy club where there is an entertainer. He or she is a comedian. That person is there to entertain. He or she may, in their entertainment with comedy, have a few moments of spiritual sobriety and relate something true about God’s Word. Because you have some anecdotal spiritual enlightenment do you walk away calling the entertainer a Minister or a comedian? Of course, you still categorize him or her as a comedian. This is precisely the same principle used for distinguishing between sacred/spiritual music and secular music (non-spiritual) or music for entertainment purposes.

The Challenge

Of course the problem, ultimately, with such principles is that they require maturity which normally possesses humility and honesty as its virtues. Spiritually humble and honest men and women can and will define and identify when sacred music has been hijacked by anecdotal elements and they will properly respond. The immature believer who wishes to define things with fuzzy meanings so that little is clear and liberty abounds where mature hearts know better, will argue such realities (which is just what God, through Peter, has told us. We are instructed to “gird our minds”. The word for gird refers to tightening loose and flowing clothing so it does not get caught while we work. In other words, tighten up your understanding of things, make definitions sure so you can know what is in front of you and what is not and so, in this case, you can know what the difference is when human entertainment is primary and spirituality is primary in any music you may encounter).

Healthy Spiritual Music Transcends

One thing you will discover with regard to healthy spiritual music is that it transcends race, ethnicity and culture. That is, for the believer who is maturing in the faith and is putting off “childish things” it is more than ostensibly that he or she will be drawn to spiritual music but it is a reality that he or she will be drawn to all forms of healthy spiritual music, regardless of the anecdotal cultural influence. Why? Because, just as was covered earlier, when the music itself is subordinate to the spiritual objective it is used in service to the spiritual and not the spiritual in service to the human element (the music). Therefore, whether in the form of Asian instrumentality or American orchestration and so on, the music will be arranged and the instruments chosen and played in a way that serves the spiritual expression of words, mood and tempo.

And this is the problem with so much of what is passed off as spiritual music today. Today the anecdote rules while the primary serves. That is, the music and its elements of human satisfaction and entertainment are primary and the spiritual communication, at best, serves as a peer but most often as an augmentation to the element of entertainment. The focus is on the music's human entertainment element(s) with spiritual words added to magically “sanctify it”. This is unprincipled and a reflection of spiritual immaturity which demonstrates a great void of wisdom.

The Absurdity of Secular Infusions

Many believers who are striving to infuse into spiritual music the strong properties of human entertainment often make the argument that some songs of spiritual value have, as their origins, low orders. In other words, allegedly some spiritual songs that are widely and historically accepted once were secular songs that might have been sung at a bar or as a cultural cheer – so to speak – and were later arranged without a great deal of modification and then had added, spiritual words. And supposedly these spiritual songs are now sung with great acceptance, so why can’t this still be the rule? And to that I answer with the obvious, “The exception demonstrates the rule”.

But considering this line of argument I suggest that one first review all historically accepted songs and then determine just how many fit this unique paradigm and when one is finished any such person will find it to be the very rare exception. The fact is a very high majority of the historically vetted sacred music we use today had spiritual objectives from its original composition. It is the rare sacred musical bird that had ignoble origins and was transformed into a song and melody of light.

Today’s Protestant/Evangelical/Fundamentalist World of Pleasing the "Audience"

I have little appreciation for what I call “The Crybaby Boomer” generation. They are possibly the most insolent, self-serving and narcissistic generation in the past 100 years. And along with their indulgent generation came the eventual output of an anthropocentric ecclesiology which is a stench on the historical landscape of God’s church. And following the CBB’s are the X-Geners who are hot on the heels of their parents eager to serve up an even more disastrous dish of unprincipled music which they wish to pass off as sacred or spiritual. Clearly, when I refer to these groups I refer to those guilty and not to the inclusive numbers of all born during these periods. However, from my observation and experience there is a culpable majority.

But this is our age, one of decaying spiritual perspicacity and valiance. It is led by what started as the “church growth movement” which is centered in bringing to its votary that which does not demand from them spiritual keenness or rigor or that which does not solicit spiritually elevated and deeply considerate concentration and focus of spiritual things, rather it lulls their epigones with music possessing heavy human appeal and spiritual scantiness.

The Gift of Sacred Music is…

The gift of sacred music is not a gift to be soiled like a play toy. Unlike secular music where its boundaries are only limited by its entertainment value (but for the Christian its boundaries are where it either violates clear biblical principle or our consciences before God) spiritual music is bound by its one objective, spiritual expression, and this requires its regulation and formation through the broad and thorough application of biblical principles.

God is elegant, God is high, God is eternal, God is spiritual, God is composed, God is clear, God is precise, God is certain, God is magnificent, God is orderly and God is divine.

God is not base, God is not discordant, God is not decomposed, God is not grotesque, God is not carnally appealing and God is not imprecise and unclear.

Sacred music is a gift and God intends for us to use it to edify ourselves, spiritually. You have all the abundant freedom in God to enjoy non-spiritual music or “secular” music. You need only be filled with God’s Spirit and guided by his Word to arrest such entertainment for your satisfaction which is quite legitimate. But brother and sister, sacred or spiritual music must not be treated with the same criteria because God’s Word does not treat it that way. We must begin with, even in the simplest of melodies and lyrics, an eschewing of human entertainment standards of music and instead, with begin with spiritual objectives in both the musical and lyrical composition. God has given us this gift; let’s use it as we know Scripture’s wisdom would have us do. Thank you Father for the gift of sacred music (God rest ye merry gentleman).

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Gift of Secular Music

I hesitate to use the word secular in referring to non-sacred music since it reminds me of how the Amish are always referring to everyone outside of their sect as the English, with the implication, always, that while they are not being condemned per se, they are not of us which is what you must be in order to be accepted. The word secular has sometimes been given this property in Evangelical Christianity. Admittedly now and then it might fit but often it does not and that is why I hesitate with its use. Nevertheless, since it is here with us at the party, oh well. So then, what do I mean by “the gift of secular music”?

First may I be clear that I, personally, do segregate music between that which entertains me and that which I use for worshipful expressions (sacred or spiritual). And I am certain the begged questions of “what if some worship music ends up entertaining you” or some insinuated form of the question of the in-between meta will arise to which I respond that I recognize this but its vitality to the topic does not require addressing it at the moment so forgive my not pursing it in order to make my larger point (and forgive the protracted qualifier here, nothing worse than a PSA announcement before the show!).

God has granted us numerous opportunities for many dimensions of experience in this world. And as a believer it certainly is true that at no point should any of these cosmic extensions be experienced apart from the filling of God’s Spirit in our lives. However, this is where the problem lies for many. While it is true all things should be done in a spiritual state (that is, while being filled with God’s Spirit) not all things we do are spiritual in nature.

Eating is a human function, not a spiritual one. The believer is to be filled by God’s Spirit, not in order to make everything a spiritual function but in order to always be guided by God’s motives and Word. So to eat while being filled with God’s Spirit does not make food something that should be avoided because it is not a spiritual function, rather it should be an exercise guided by God’s Spirit which brings proper motivation (being led by the Spirit) and proper principle (God’s Word). And sometimes this may be greatly impacted by God’s Spirit and Word and at other times it may not be significantly impacted. Each case must be measured accordingly.

Take book reading. Many Christians enjoy novels of adventure and drama. The Bible does not forbid this. It is what some call adiaphora (ἀδιάφορα) which refers to “indifferent things” or as is often called - matters of liberty. And this is where we come with secular music.

Secular music certainly is to be enjoyed in the state of being filled with God’s Spirit which also means,  as I stated earlier, being guided by God’s principles. And the first thing we see is that there is no direct prohibition against it. So the second thing we must then do is understand what principles the Bible provides to guide us. And when we search, discover and establish the biblical boundaries of such music we may take advantage of the full pleasure of secular music being offered, again always while filled with God’s Spirit. I can further this point by naming a few principles but I won't because this is not the thrust of the essay (that is, the points themselves), and so for now I will leave that to the reader to discover.

I am reluctant to name a few of the secular performers I enjoy for the sake of weaker brothers or sisters. I genuinely am concerned that such naming of these may be stumbling blocks because they may represent strong former ties associated with sinful habits. However, I do have something more modest in mind.

The other night, PBS broadcast a program that was centered around Frank Sinatra’s music. The show was to raise money for PBS but my focus was on Sinatra’s music. I enjoy most all of what he does (he did get my verbal commentary when they presented him singing My Way, but he is dead and gone and could not hear it and the cat and my dear spouse both looked at me with a certain understanding) and so I sat there watching the program with the satisfying digestion of good musical entertainment. It was fantastic, frankly (yes pun intended).

So let’s expand this to today's entertainment since we still have secular music intended for personal diversion which does not violate biblical principles. What do we do with these? Well, my suggestion is thank God for them and praise our Lord for such gifts of entertainment which help us relax, be amused, experience emotions and motivate us and so on.

Just as you would and do enjoy many secular things, music, too, is to be enjoyed through the filling of God’s Spirit and the principles of His Word. But remember, it is not sacred music and it is not intended for such uses and it is no unusual thing to understand why, when people use music designed for entertainment or some non-sacred purpose, they find it very discomforting and out of place when they are subjected to attempts to use such in sacred or spiritual contexts. Thank you, Father, for the gift of secular music (FM, no static at all).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The #1 Means Through Which Doctrinal Error Enters the Church? Orthodoxy (or Orthodox False Teachers)!

You should not be greatly surprised to learn that orthodox biblical doctrine (orthodox refers to the accepted norm) is the primary means through which doctrinal error enters the body of Christ. However, in this day and age it is probably news to some and a needed reminder to many.

In Peter’s second letter he makes a statement of fact identifying this. He writes (2 Peter 2:1b NIV):

They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

The word for secret, here, is (παρεισάγω) pareisagó which means to place something along side of something else (in order to hide it). Get the picture? It is behind the façade of orthodoxy that false teaching is introduced. The erring Teacher depends on orthodoxy in order to introduce his (or her, unfortunately to the many in the body of Christ asleep at the wheel) parasitic philosophy. Often, the very ideas contained in their novel but poisonous doctrine-which become absorbed and accepted without rigorous vetting-are later used by some to attempt to overthrow the very orthodoxy they claim to have believed when they made entry into the mainstream.

In Peter’s letter he describes these pseudodidaskalos (false teachers) as both heretics and apostates. An apostate is someone who once held to orthodox views but later, moved from those views and now espouses something contrary to orthodoxy. A heretic, on the other hand, is much broader.

The word for heresies (αἵρεσις) refers to a mix of opinion and truth. That is, instead of the Teacher being bound by the text and disciplining their teaching so that they are not reading into the text a foreign meaning, the heretic does just this and makes up novel teachings based on reading a meaning into a text which, as Peter describes it, are “cleverly devised stories". So a heretic can continue to hold to orthodox views but introduce erring doctrines which corrupt the edifice of remaining doctrine and generally, at some point, will approach (usually in their ignorance but often simply in their arrogance) even their orthodox views, but not always. So what you have, in essence, is an orthodox heretic.

And this is one of the most critical points here. Within Christianity, but most specifically Protestant, Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity, the battle cry in defense of Teachers who have introduced teaching that has sorely injured God’s children is that “they are orthodox”. Well friend, Peter is trying to tell you something and you ought to listen. Someone uttering agreement with orthodoxy or even elaborating on it effectively at times does not immune them from teaching heresy nor does it warrant your deliberate ignorance and unwillingness to see their error for what it is. Peter tells us, it is through orthodoxy that these other teachings enter! If someone says they are orthodox my response is, "great, but now I am going to vet your teachings and if it contains error or heresy, sorry, but I will call it what it is" and you ought do so as well, reader.

Many people are afraid of the word heretic  because of its misuse. But it is a biblical word. Be not afraid, believer, and use it effectively. But to the main concern here.

If you take a look at Benny Hinn’s website and read his statement of belief you will find that he is orthodox. He agrees with all the main doctrines which identify a person as a Christian in doctrine. Yet, Benny Hinn has introduced many erring concepts, in fact, some even challenging the very orthodoxy he claims to believe.

But take someone which others might claim is less egregious. John Piper calls himself a Reformed Baptist and not only has he made clear that he believes basic orthodoxy but he has defended some of its tenets. Yet, in his book Future Grace, Piper introduced a heresy which taught that our justification was not final the moment we receive Christ but depended upon our fidelity until death. This is heresy to the Protestant, Evangelical and Fundamentalist.

As well, Piper’s book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, is based on a heretical premise. Piper declares quite clearly the following (bold mine):

“I found in myself an overwhelming longing to be happy, a tremendously powerful impulse to seek pleasure, yet at every point of moral decision I said to myself that this impulse should have no influence ... Then I was converted to Christian Hedonism. In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him” (Desiring God, Introduction).

Notice what Piper heretically asserts, “that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason that the pleasure to be had in Him”. This is not merely a statement without implications. It attacks the very nature of our relationship with God. In fact, it mocks the large and detailed biblical landscape which covers many facts of our walk with God and all of its properties. In another day and time, John Piper would have been made to either recant this assertion or rightly be labeled as heretic, regardless of his claims toward orthodoxy because again, simply being orthodox does not exempt one from being a heretic.

This is not a particularly sophisticated piece and it need not be. Rather, it is a reminder that many, today, are being pushed forward as accepted Teachers based on a faulty threshold which is orthodoxy. Simply because one claims to hold to orthodoxy does not exempt him from being identified as a heretic.

Obviously not all error is heretical. That is, someone may have exegetical misunderstandings which produce error but this does not come from a mix of opinion and truth, rather a flawed attempt at proper exegesis. So, not all error is of the heretical kind but the kind of error that is running rampant and its proponents are being shielded from rightly being labeled heretics, is the kind of error that is aggressively being tolerated in the name of a misunderstanding of when and how to identify heresy and label its proponents heretics. Sadly it is being practiced by some rather significant Teachers who are modeling a form of categorical ignorance which is inviting injury to many.