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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why Do We Think We Can Make a Better Bible than God?

The Gospel of Mark is known to be kind of weird, weird enough that it appears that Matthew and Luke and even arguably (and much more extremely) John wrote their Gospels for the purpose of correcting or improving Mark. I happen to find it strangely delightful that the Holy Spirit inspired four people to record the same story because each thought that the efforts of the ones who preceded them weren’t good enough, and for the purpose of a full canon they were all correct, even though the God who inspired them was perfectly satisfied with every detail of each book as an individual work. For a really insightful article on this that cleverly compares Mark to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, see here.

But back to Mark. His Gospel is all middle—it barely has a beginning and is missing the end. He puts extreme emphasis on Jesus’ miracles, at least in quantity, at the expense of his teaching (see John for the reverse). And sometimes Mark phrases things in a way that just doesn’t sound right. Sometimes it simply isn’t grammatically elegant (Luke in particular likes cleaning up these flubs), but other times the way Mark puts something genuinely alarms orthodox people.

An example of this that struck me lately is in the portion of Mark where Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees about divorce (10:2-12). You might recall that the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is permitted under Jewish law, and when Jesus answers by asking them to recite Moses’ teaching, they respond by quoting a portion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4—as Mark records it, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (10:4). Then Jesus replies, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father ad mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 5-9).

The bulk of Jesus’ answer is a quotation of Genesis 1:27; 2:24. But if you look carefully at the beginning of Jesus’ answer, it looks like he’s saying that Moses made humanity male and female. Look at it again. Pharisees: “Moses permitted a man to . . . divorce her.” Jesus: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.”

Wait a second—Moses made them male and female? Impossible! Heresy, even! This can’t be what Jesus said, and it certainly wasn’t what he meant, so we had better change it. Fortunately, many before us already have, going all the way back to the apostolic generation itself. Matthew rephrased Mark to say that “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4, my emphasis). Although the oldest and most reliable ancient manuscripts of Mark we possess say that “he made them male and female,” most manuscripts say that “God” did it, the result of Christian copyists who concluded that “he” couldn’t possibly be original, so they changed the text. These later, inferior manuscripts were the basis of the King James Version, which has “God” in Mark 10:6. However, nearly all modern versions, which were translated by scholars working with better manuscripts who know that “God” isn’t original to Mark’s text, put the word there anyway to make the subject of the sentence clear.

But my question is, what if they are “making clear” the wrong subject?

Let’s stop and think about this for a second. Is there anybody who believes that Jesus believed that Moses, a human being himself, created humanity in the beginning of creation, and not God the Father? Does anybody believe that either the Pharisees Jesus was talking to or Mark or Mark’s original readers thought that Jesus believed that? In fact, if you went to a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea that had never heard a word of Scripture in their lives and read this to them, would any of them conclude from this that a human being named Moses created humanity? Of course not; it’s simply absurd. So why is it so important to insert the word “God” in Mark 10:6?

In fact, what if saying “God made them male and female” actually obscures Jesus’ point? What if Jesus was actually trying to say that from the beginning Moses made them male and female, as Mark’s text simply suggests? If Jesus was indeed saying that Moses made them male and female for some strange reason, then the attempts of the church for 2,000 years to make this “clear” has confused what Jesus wants us to hear.

If so, what might Jesus have been communicating to the Pharisees by “he made them male and female”? In short, Jesus isn’t just teaching about divorce. He’s teaching about interpreting Scripture.

“Some Pharisees came . . . to test him” with a question about interpreting and applying Scripture and the tradition of the elders. There are a few things to note about Jesus’ answer to their challenge. First, when asked if divorce is lawful, Jesus cut through tradition and pointed them to Scripture: “What did Moses command you?” not, what did this or that rabbi (or pastor/author/Bible teacher or pope/council/church father) say in his interpretative judgment? This is particularly noteworthy because there was a debate among the Pharisees at that time over what constituted legal grounds for divorce based on the interpretations of two rabbis (Hillel and Shammai). The Pharisees’ debate comes out more in Matthew’s version, where Jesus takes sides in it, but in Mark’s version Jesus ignores that question entirely as well as the rabbis themselves and focuses simply on what the Bible says.

A second thing to note—a lesson I’m trying to learn as a pastor right now—is that he didn’t just give them the answer, but he made them look for the answer themselves.

Third, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ selective interpretation of Scripture. When Jesus asked them, “What did Moses command you?”, the Pharisees went straight to Deuteronomy 24, which was handy, because it happened to be the text that said what they wanted to hear. Jesus’ response is telling: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.” The Deuteronomy text is late in the Mosaic corpus. But at the beginning of that corpus, in the account of creation, Moses put man and woman on papyrus (he “made them”) “male and female . . . and the two will become one flesh.” The Pharisees were taking the Deuteronomy text in isolation, out of its setting in the overall Mosaic corpus and the narrative of Scripture as a whole. That’s not a legitimate interpretation, Jesus maintains. You can’t understand what Moses, inspired by God, writes in Deuteronomy apart from what he writes in Genesis. The same Moses who allowed divorce in Deuteronomy portrays husband in wife in Genesis as inseparable. If you make a serious effort to understand Moses, Jesus asserts, you can’t avoid the conclusion that divorce exists in Deuteronomy 24 because the Fall exists in Genesis 3 after the good creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2. And if God’s reign is indeed near, as Jesus relentlessly proclaimed, then preparing for that kingdom means adapting one’s habits in relationship with others to the pure new creation, not complacently accepting the habits of the fallen old one of which divorce, unfaithfulness, and sin-hardened hearts are corrupt features.

What Jesus says in this passage, along with the rest of Scripture, should assuredly form our mindset toward divorce. But it should also form our mindset toward Scripture itself. We, like the Pharisees, can be so accustomed to the teaching we’ve received—even if it’s as recent a vintage as last year’s bestseller—that we can’t keep straight what the biblical text says versus what an interpreter says. We need to be redirected to Scripture supremely.

We also need to be directed to Scripture in total, not just the passages that we’re most comfortable with. We have to take the entire text seriously, neglecting nothing. And though it is almost inevitable (and sometimes desirable) that certain parts of the Bible become keys by which we understand the rest, we must be critical of what we take to be those keys. The Pharisees unthinkingly took Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as one of their keys; Jesus asserted that Genesis 1-2 was the actual key by which Deuteronomy 24 should be understood. We too can pick the wrong interpretive key and not know it and thereby distort our understanding of the whole thing.

Ironically, Jesus’ teaching about Scripture in this particular text is obscured by centuries of Christians doing the very things Jesus rebukes. Rather than looking squarely at what Mark says, we’ve been distracted by what copyists, interpreters, and translators say he said. To be fair, one of those distractions has been Matthew, and as a biblical author it’s crucial that we not neglect what he said either. But we’ve taken Matthew’s version of the story as the interpretive key to Mark such that it has swamped the latter text and substituted a false unison for the harmony of their distinct and complementary voices. Our penchant for using Matthew as a shorthand for Mark prevents us from looking at all of Scripture.

We would be wise to ask God humbly in prayer to correct us when we think we can phrase or organize the Bible better than he can. I hope we keep getting better at receiving what he gave us.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How a College Football Game Changed My Understanding of Church

Last Saturday I took my 10-year-old son Jack to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to watch our favorite college football team, the Syracuse Orange, play the Pittsburgh Panthers, and I discovered some things I wasn’t looking for.

I had been looking forward to this game for months, and even the few weeks before when I bought the tickets I was still hopeful that the game would “mean something” with respect to the conference championship. So I spent the extra money for tickets in the block of seats that Pitt sold to Syracuse for resale. If this was going to be a huge game, I wanted to be able to give full-throated support to the team in a crowd of like-minded fans.

As it turned out, the game couldn’t have meant less for the conference championship, though it was still important for two 5-6 teams trying to end the season at .500 and mediocre bowl eligibility. But my decision to get seats in the Syracuse section was a great one. Jack and I got to yell and cheer and go crazy immediately in front of about four rows of SU students doing the same thing. We bellowed at the field with them when the defense forced Pitt into a 3rd down. We joined in their spontaneous cheers of “Let’s go, O-range!” We learned Syracuse’s first-down cheer. After one touchdown I even heard the words to the fight song for the first time as the students broke into it in lieu of the marching band. If I can help it, I’ll never go to a game again without sitting as close to students as possible.

The game had some great moments, but it ended in heartbreak—a fumble returned for a touchdown by the opposition on what could have been the game-winning drive with about three minutes to go, virtually sealing the Orange’s losing season. It was the next to last of a series of head-in-hands groaners that included ten penalties and six turnovers amid other less easily quantified errors. Immediately upon the backbreaker, a throng of fans in my section leapt for the exits as if their seats were suddenly electrified just as I’ve seen in the Carrier Dome on TV too many times. Jack and I waited until the bitter end before leaving our seats, forgetting to linger until the team came over to sing the alma mater with the student spectators.

The game ended stunningly early at 3:00—Syracuse had a drive in the 4th quarter that consumed an absurd amount of clock—so we decided to try to find where players might come out of the stadium and hang around until they did. We walked around the outside of the stadium to the opposite end where we found two sizable clumps of people—about two thirds Syracuse and one third Pitt—on either side of a gate in a high, chain-link privacy fence, the way kept clear for the coach buses we glimpsed on the other side by yellow-jacketed security people. This nondescript entryway under a highway on-ramp and next to a four-lane road was one of the least pedestrian-friendly spaces I’ve ever stood at, I think, but we were pretty sure we found the right place.

After a while we watched a trickle of players emerge from the gate one-by-one. It was easy to tell the teams apart, the Pitt players dressed in a uniform warmup suit and the Syracuse players dressed in coats and ties. That’s when the surprises started for me. First, I could recognize almost none of the players, despite knowing all their names and being able to give a moderately accurate account of their performance over the season. I had assumed therefore that I “knew” them, but I didn’t: I couldn’t even pick most of them out of a crowd. Second, I was surprised by how small the Orange were. Granted, no offensive linemen emerged from the gate, but I was probably one of the three tallest people in the crowd, only one of the three being a football player. And few of the players looked like their muscle-bound physiques were bursting out of their suits. This observation is a testimony to the talent level of the team at the present time; it would be different if I was waiting for players from LSU. But the third surprise is probably true of nearly all college football teams: these players are young. They look like the 20-year-olds that they are—men, but barely. We’re spending so much money and putting so much pressure on boys, I thought. What are we doing? And how much money are people making off these ordinary-looking young men, I wonder.

Each player that came through the gate quickly found his parents, often accompanied by the player’s siblings, girlfriend, friends of the family. They hugged and kissed each other. They shook hands with teammates’ parents. An occasional picture was posed and taken. Some (in my honest opinion, not enough) looked dejected and barely making it after giving away their fifth consecutive loss, squandering a 5-2 start and finishing last in the conference. But for the most part smiles abounded.

One player seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders—his successes and failures on the field were many and conspicuous, but only the latter would be remembered. He was the first player to come out of the gate that I recognized, and when I bent down to point him out to Jack my son identified him before I did. Unexpectedly, the player proceeded from the gate right towards us: his father was standing next to me. “Are you okay?” the dad quietly asked.

The pair hugged. “Yeah,” the son murmured unconvincingly. They started walking away to get a few moments of privacy when I suddenly had an idea.

“Excuse me, Mr. ________, you have a fan here,” I heard myself blurt out. I thrust Jack in front of me.

The player and his father turned around. “Oh . . . yeah,” he said, looking down at Jack, not knowing what to say. He stuck out his hand and shook Jack’s, who stood frozen, awed at the presence of greatness.

“I’m a fan, too,” I said as the player looked up. We shook hands. As his young, miserable, hangdog eyes locked with mine, I said what I could: “Hang in there. Have a good rest of your year.”

He politely thanked me and turned. His dad was about to follow but stopped. Smiling, he looked down at my son. Keep working hard, he said. Hit the weights. I thanked him in place of Jack, who was still dumbstruck. Then they disappeared behind the crowd.

We hung around a bit longer pointing out the players that we knew until the team was recalled within the fence for departure. We waved with the gathered families at the tinted windows of the three coach buses driven by men in orange hats as they pulled out of the stadium. Then we walked, chattering, across the Heinz Field parking lot to the wide walkway along the Allegheny River, the tall buildings of downtown Pittsburgh standing majestically in the late-afternoon sun.

I was moved by what we had experienced standing in the midst of these young men embraced by their fathers, especially by the player we met and his father. I thought about the games my father took me to that I’ll always remember. I thought about how my son would always remember this day, the first time we had ever done something this special as just the two of us, an island of fun and joy amid the churning waves of homework, discipline, shuttling, chores, exasperation, and fatigue.

“I love you, Jack,” I said out of the silence.

“I love you too,” he answered.

As we continued on I reflected on what I had witnessed that day among the fans. This was a road game, so nearly every Syracuse fan there was highly committed. But I observed two different kinds of commitment.

One kind of fan that I saw I would call a member of the fellowship, most obviously represented by the students behind me in the stands and the parents outside the stadium gate. The members of the fellowship are a social and emotional part of the program itself even though they don’t suit up and take the field. There are usually personal relationships that bind them to those that do. They come to the game to support the team—that is, they are there for the team, not the other way around.

The other kind of fan that I saw was the entitled spectator. Entitled spectators are highly invested in the team also, but in a different way. They spend a considerable amount of their time and money on the football program as a major source of their entertainment in place of other entertainment options. They are loyal enough not to yield the program as their first entertainment option easily, but they are also paying customers who expect bang for their buck, and bang includes winning. They are not there for the team; the team is there for them.

It was easiest to tell the difference between members of the fellowship and entitled spectators when things went wrong. Everybody suffered. But you might hear loud sarcasm, anger, and cynicism from entitled spectators that you wouldn’t hear from members of the fellowship. An entitled spectator might boo but a member of the fellowship never would, because that would be like booing oneself. When the game was clearly unwinnable, many entitled spectators hurried away like they were late for their firstborn’s birth while members of the fellowship silently remained with the players.

That’s when it clicked: I see the same thing in my church.

My church has members of the fellowship. They come to church for the church’s sake. That’s what motivates them to give and serve and hang in there when times are bad. When things go wrong they are grieved with their fellow members, not against them. When worship is over they hang around chatting and smiling, because they like being with their fellow members and don’t want to say goodbye too quickly. They are one.

My church also has entitled spectators. They come to church to receive a religious experience. They also give and may serve, but they do so to ensure a place that provides them what they like on Sunday morning. When they have gotten what they have paid their religion dollar for (which includes paying their time) they leave immediately, the cost of hanging around no longer worth the benefit.

My church also has casual spectators. These are like many of the paying customers at Syracuse’s home football games, people who enjoy coming for the entertainment value when it suits but don’t have a lot of loyalty to or interest in the organization itself.

I am confident that every church, including yours, has the same groups of “fans” that mine has. But there is a crucial aspect of a church that makes it very different from a college football program. In a church you can have people who are “members of the fellowship” and “entitled spectators” at the same time.

Some of the people at my church (and perhaps yours) are entitled spectators when it comes to the church as a whole, worshiping loyally and giving devotedly but doing so for themselves. But the same people are members of the fellowship with respect to a smaller group in the church: a program, a Bible study or Sunday School class, a ministry, a circle of friends that spends time together on their own time. In addition, there are people who are members of the fellowship of the larger church who function toward subunits as entitled spectators (or casual spectators, or nothing).

So here are come big questions for churches.

How does a person go from being nothing to being a casual spectator to being an entitled spectator to being a member of the fellowship?

Is it desirable for a person to skip over the step of “entitled spectator,” and if so, is it possible?

What is the numerical balance between these four groups in a healthy, growing church?

Is it a problem for a church when there is a fellowship subgroup inside it with members that are committed to that fellowship as members but are committed to the whole body as entitled spectators?

If it is a problem, what do you do about it?

If the desires of members of the fellowship of the whole church conflict with the desires of entitled spectators of that church—especially when those spectators are members of the fellowship of their own subgroup—how is the church to resolve that conflict?

Is it a problem when an entire church is a collection of fellowships that all function as entitled spectators toward the whole?

I can’t answer these questions yet. But I do know that both with churches and college football programs movement from one group to another is sometimes possible. At the game last Saturday I crossed the line from entitled spectator (though not the grouchy kind) to member of the fellowship. It started the preceding week when I wrote to the head coach and he actually replied. It continued sitting in front of the students. And it concluded standing with the parents. Unlike most members of the Syracuse football fellowship, no other member really knows my name, but I know that I am a member nevertheless. I went to the game last Saturday because I wanted to have a good time watching it and in hopes that it would “mean something.” In two years when the teams play in Pittsburgh I’ll go again because I have to be there. If my team is there, it automatically means something, and I’m going for them.

When you gather with your church or a portion of your church this week, consider: what kind of fan are you?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Rant about Worship Music and Choosing a Church

Here are some thoughts on worship music and being part of a church. I’m going to start by giving you my worship music résumé—not so I can boast, but because I think you need to know some of my background to understand where I’m going with this.

I began playing the piano to accompany worship in youth settings in 9th grade. By the end of high school I was frequently leading worship from the piano. The music I was leading was almost exclusively contemporary worship songs, which I genuinely enjoyed. Meanwhile, however, my favorite worship music was classic hymns, particularly Reformation and post-Reformation German chorales and 18th-century English hymnody (such as settings of the lyrics of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley).

Although I was going to major in college in music composition, I quickly changed my major to biblical literature, but I still minored in church music. I continued to have occasional worship-leading opportunities in traditional, contemporary, and blended situations. As a freshman I was tapped by the director of the college’s Chorale to write the program notes for our traditional worship-oriented concert tour. As a junior I planned, oversaw, and led a Maundy Thursday service of songs (of various styles), prayers, and Scriptural readings. As a senior I led the student body in hymn singing in chapel not quite once a week and sang and played in the contemporary worship band in chapel about as often.

I also played in the jazz band, which was valuable preparation for joining the choir and worship team (on keys) of the multiracial church that I joined in seminary. All worship songs in that church, including hymns and white contemporary music, were recast in the urban gospel idiom that I had to pick up in addition to learning a new corpus of songs. I succeeded, but I never played like a native; you could always hear typically white motifs in my hybrid style of playing, sort of like speaking another language with an accent.

In both the churches I have served as pastor I have introduced contemporary songs and style into a traditional worship setting. In some cases, particularly in my first church, I did it by playing and teaching the music myself.

This variegated experience has given me a range of skills. I can play the piano by reading sheet music, by improvising off the harmonization of a hymn in a hymnal, by reading a lead sheet or chord chart of a contemporary song, or by listening to a song and generating an accompaniment off the top of my head. I can sing a song I’ve never heard before—written-out soprano, alto, tenor, or bass—by sight, and I can also improvise a harmony by hearing the melody. I can write out a chord chart, sometimes with different options for the chord progression, by hearing a song, and I could even arrange one by writing it all out (for keys at least), though it’s tedious and I don’t care for doing it. I’ve even written a few worship songs myself. I can play or sing in a band and lead a congregation in singing while doing so. In sum, there are many church musicians in the world that are more talented and more skilled in their craft than I am, but there are fewer who have as broad a skill set as I have.

I go on so long about my worship music qualifications to demonstrate that I have more reason to be a worship music snob and critic than almost anyone I have ever met and almost anyone you have ever met.

And I make that assertion to set up another: when I hear about a person who chooses to attend (or cease to attend) a church because of the worship music, I get one step closer to going ballistic, and I don’t think I have many more steps left.

There are a few reasons for this.

One is, to my knowledge—and please show it to me if I’m not seeing it—there is not a shred of biblical support for selecting who you are going to gather to worship God with based on whether you like the music they sing. I can’t think of a single verse that even hints that that might be a godly idea. Again, if you know of one, please let me know. (I admit, this sounds harsh—I promise to nuance it slightly by the end of this post. But I basically mean what I say here.) Actually, closely related to this is my belief that it’s hard to find much biblical support for making an individual choice about what Christians you’re going to gather with for any reason. But that’s probably getting off onto a different topic.

Another reason I might go crazy is that if anybody has a beef with the level of excellence of worship music in a church that I’m a part of, it probably bothers me more. And if God put me there, I’m not leaving because of it, so you shouldn’t either.

While I’m on the subject, the week-to-week quality of music in the multiracial church from my seminary years was, at least for the first couple years, the highest quality of music in any church I’ve spent a significant amount of time in. Some of the musicians in that church were good. I was just trying to keep up a lot of the time, but the minister of music was good, as in recording-on-keyboard-for-major-gospel-artists’-albums good. But I’ve got to tell you, there were a lot of times that I got really frustrated with music in that church.

Even though I loved the new songs and idiom I was picking up, I missed the music I knew from previous places in my life. I really missed it. I remember a few days before Easter one year I was making small-talk with the minister of music (my best friend in the church). I said, “So, getting ready for Easter, huh? Your basic ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’?” His eyes got wide and he took a step back, and we both knew that I had just uncovered an awkward racial misunderstanding/faux pas for us both, as it had never crossed his mind to do that hymn, much less that whites in the congregation might be taking it for granted that we would sing it, and as I was making a cultural assumption that could suggest an entitlement attitude to blacks in the congregation. So on Easter the music minister perfunctorily led us from the Hammond B3 organ in “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as I played along on keyboard, sort of embarrassed and still unsatisfied by the whole thing.

And yet, I learned just to accept things like that. I was convinced that God wanted me in that church, that therefore I would worship him no matter what the music was. I also decided that the worship music that I loved that would never be done in my church I would sing to him when I was alone. That was simply all there was to it.

Related to worshiping no matter what the music is, I have another story from a completely different setting. I was at an ecumenical worship service at the cathedral near where I minister now, and it naturally was liturgically “high”—a blend of Roman Catholic and Mainline/Magisterial Protestant liturgy, which to the untrained, low-church Evangelical all seems the same, though I’m quite sure that the Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians there were all keenly aware of what in the service differed from their own traditional worship. Anyway, the speaker was the main ecumenical guy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who used to be a parish priest in Alaska in an overwhelmingly Protestant (especially Evangelical) community. As he was recounting what he learned about ecumenism in that setting he made a comment I’ll never forget: “I learned that to Evangelicals, ‘worship’ means ‘music.’ ”

I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but I find his assessment not only completely true but completely damning. Of course “worship” means “music” to us! How many times have I heard (well, in one sense, probably not enough), “The worship was really great today,” and of course the person is referring to the time we spent singing. But where in the Bible do we see worship reduced to singing? Of course music is regularly portrayed as a component of worship in the Bible, but never in isolation. In the Old Testament the biggest component of worship is sacrifice (which to the Catholic mind is still the case, preserved in the Eucharist), but we also see prayers and the reading and teaching of Scripture, and in the New Testament we also see prophecy and healings as components of worship (and the Lord’s Supper too), and over it all we have that great commandment to offer our very bodies as living sacrifices that by living our lives we might worship God (Rom. 12:1). But to a huge proportion of Evangelical Christians, if they don’t connect emotionally with the music that day, they conclude that “worship” was no good. How pathetic.

What are you bringing to worship? In the Old Testament no one came to worship God empty-handed. It was a contradiction in terms. In the small-group worship settings of New Testament churches “each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26). So what are you bringing to your worship event? Are you bringing yourself? Your mind? Your emotions? Your money? Your children? Your service in the nursery or handing out bulletins? What do you contribute to worship when you gather with the saints? Are you giving it your best effort? Are you prepared? Or are you expecting someone not merely to conduct you but to drag you mindlessly into something blissful like a TV show did the night before? If the worship leader invites you to pray the words of a biblical psalm, are you going to grunt it thoughtlessly (if at all) or are you going to pray it with your whole voice and your whole heart like David did when he was trying to avoid getting his head chopped off?

Before I conclude let me swing back to the comment about biblical support for choosing a church based on how much you like its music (i.e., that there isn’t any). One essential quality of a church is that the “whole counsel of God” is taught there. Of course, no church pulls this off completely, but you should at least expect an effort. One thing that really bothers me about worship music that’s stuck in one particular idiom as it is in the great majority of churches of all types is that it tends to get stuck in a narrow doctrinal and/or devotional rut too.

Each era/culture/idiom of music expresses particular things to God and about God well. From the Reformation German chorales I learned the nature of God and his world. From the 18th-century British hymns I learned the immensity of both sin and redemption. 19th-century American hymns by Lowell Mason, Fanny Crosby, and others taught me to love and devote myself to Jesus. Turn-of-the-century “gospel songs” by Ira Sankey and the like taught me that Jesus makes life better and it’s okay to be happy about it. I really disliked the Gaithers’ songs when I was a kid, but now that I’m older they speak to me, saying that through all the ups and downs of life Jesus is supremely to be desired. The white worship songs of the past thirty years taught me to express all my emotions to God directly and one-on-one. The black songs taught me that I don’t need a reason to praise God other than that he’s God, even when I have nothing else.

If I didn’t have any one of these styles in me, my worship of God would be poorer and thinner as a result. And that’s why I just don’t understand and will never understand the vast majority of Christians who hold their narrow worship-music preference more tightly than an article of faith, and I don’t understand churches that do it either. I don’t know how a church can truly teach the whole counsel of God and meanwhile worship him with a set of songs that all say basically the same thing.

Meanwhile, if you come to my church and then leave because you didn’t like the music, I will try hard and probably successfully to smile and be pleasant about it and wait to pop my cork at home when you’re not around. And if my church becomes the kind of church that people flock to because the music is so good . . . man, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I won’t be happy about it. Because if I was starting a church from scratch in this day and age, and if somehow all the verses about making music to the Lord disappeared from the Bible, we might not sing a darned thing.