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Wednesday
May042016

What I'll Be Up to at the National Worship Leader Conference

I love the National Worship Leader Conferences. I've been to them in every kind of capacity now. I've been there as a participant (Check out my post on that from several years back). I've been there as a songwriter, featured at one of their informal showcases. I've been there to conduct an interview with Bill and Gloria Gaither (read my insights about that here). Last year, I had the opportunity to speak about Jesus as the one true Worship Leader. This year, I'm participating as a kind of "pastor-chaplain" over the event, along with speaking to the topic of worship leading as prayer leading, along with hosting a few breakouts.

The 2016 theme is a bit more focused than previous years: "Teach Us to Pray." Worship Leader Magazine and the conferences have been examining the nature of worship as prayer, believing that a recovery of this idea just might be the source of healing and wholeness for many of the current issues before the church's worship today. Of course I agree.

Breakout Session: 10 Things Worship Leaders Wish Their Pastors Knew. Let's just say this one will get saucy.

Breakout Session: Leading Through a Worship Style Transition. Let's just say this one IS saucy. I don't need to add to the sauce.

There's still time to register for Virginia, Texas, and Kansas (I'll be in VA and KS).

Tuesday
May032016

Thoughts About the Song "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)"

If you follow my blog, and if you read my book, you will hear a lot about the Reformational distinction of Law and Gospel. For me, this paradigm is inescapable not only in the Bible but in all of life. It is the distinction that Paul makes in order to exegete the whole Bible in a Christological fashion. From his clear statement in Galatians 2:16, to his developed soteriology in Romans 3, to his exegesis of the Pentateuch in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul testifies that Law and Gospel are the two forms in which the Word of God breaks into creation.

I’m convinced that these two forms of God’s Word speak loud and clear (whether we recognize it or not) in every last one of our worship services, and the more we can discern their voices, the better equipped we will be to plan and lead gospel-shaped, Christ-mediated worship services.

This distinction is heavily at play in the liturgies which emerged during the time of the Reformation. In particular, I observe a strong Law-Gospel filter applied to the way reformer Thomas Cranmer constructed the English Prayer Book. When I first read his 1552 liturgy, I was a little surprised to find a litany with the Ten Commandments at the top of the service. Not only was this not a seeker-sensitive move; it was downright depressing! The 1552 service begins with this dramatic prayer, still a part (in various modifications) of many Anglican/Episcopal services today:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer immediately prefaces a responsorial reading of the Ten Commandments, where, after each commandment is read, the congregation responds, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Think about the impact of opening a service like this. Think about what you would feel as you would enter into God’s presence in this fashion.

Modern worship songs frequently address, either explicitly or implicitly, how in worship we “open our hearts” to God. Our temptation, then, in reading back into Cranmer’s opening prayer is to think that an “open heart” is a positive, feel-good image. But once we realize the context of the Law in which it’s placed, we need to understand this cardiological statement more like “open heart” surgery rather than the lovey-dovey stuff (for Cranmer, and for the Law-Gospel distinction, this comes later). “Our hearts are open” means, “O God, before Your Law, my heart is cut open, and I’m bleeding to death. In Your presence, I am undone.”

Needless to say, I found this move by Cranmer captivating. I began asking: What would it look like in a twenty-first century modern worship service to begin like this? What would it look like to open a worship service with the Law offering a sucker-punch straight to the gut of Old Adam? So we wrote a song. It is neither a full blown recitation of the Ten Commandments nor a verbatim recasting of Cranmer’s glorious “Collect for Purity.” It’s a modern take on capturing the feeling and reaction that Cranmer’s liturgy would have evoked. Perhaps most muted is the fifth commandment, universally applied beyond honoring father and mother as “let loving-kindness flow to all we know.”

The hope with the song is not so much provide a tool for people to recite the Ten Commandments in a worship service as it is to create a context where the Commandments’ weight is palpably felt, where the Law can do it’s appropriate killing and crushing work, and where we can cry out to God, “You’ve cut my heart open! Sew it back together!,” or, in the words of Toplady, “Wash me Savior, or I die.” 

“Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)” is intended to be a song for use at the top of the service, or within the first few songs. It really doesn’t fit anywhere else, unless you’re intending to introduce another gospel-structured narrative cycle into the service. I hope it fills a gap in worship songwriting and provides something fresh for those of us with highly sung, song-set-oriented liturgies.

Resources for the Song

chord chart | lead sheet

Lyrics

1. You brought us safe across salvation’s sea
To know no other gods, nor idols seek
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word 

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues,
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones,
Incline our hearts,] to keep Your Word 

Almighty God, our hearts are open
Our secret thoughts are bare before Your eyes
Your presence is the all-consuming fire
Purify our hearts, as we cry:
Lord have mercy 

2. Let lovingkindness flow to all we know
Till anger, lust, and greed we cannot sow
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Your Truth shall silence every lying mouth
And quench the urge to take what is not ours
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Bridge:
Lord have mercy
Perfect glory
Now surrounds me
Overwhelms me

5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2015
©2015 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP); Julie Anne Vargas
CCLI #7056905
Wednesday
Apr202016

The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor

Zombies in the Lights

A few days ago, I ended up in a really fascinating dialogue on Twitter with thoughtful worship leader, Jordan Atwell (@jordanatwell) and visual liturgy smart guy, Stephen Proctor (@stephenproctor). We were entertaining the question, in response to my tweet about this wonderful article, about what it looks like to pastorally engage visual aesthetics in worship. We tend to think of things like projection, screens, lights, and other visual atmospherics as either neutral cultural phenomena or (more negatively) as yet more capitulation to culture’s rock show idolatry.  Usually, all the conversations about those visual elements stop there. Either we’re relegated to pragmatic, technical conversations about the latest, coolest LEDs, gobos, robotics, and immersive projection, or we’re (not inappropriately) decrying the commercialization of worship through zombifying overstimulation.

But what if there’s another conversation to have? What if the discussion about lights and projection can be framed pastorally? I think the above mentioned article is a great example of what such reflection might look like with regards to screens and slide projection. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post. 

The Debbie Downer of Visual Arts

Stephen mentioned what many do when these discussions get rolling—namely, that the Reformation’s iconoclasm (rejection of much visual art) threw out a lot of the helpful and sacred visuals of the church, impoverishing our “sacramental imagination.” Stephen, of course, is dead on. Perhaps some want to justify the Reformation’s general over-reaction to stained glass, art, and other aesthetic riches due to how far the medieval Roman church had gone in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, I have observed a chink in the Reformation’s generally iconoclastic armor, and I believe we’re witnessing, slowly but surely, that chink being identified, yanked on, and peered through. The hole is getting bigger, and those of us who cherish much about the Reformation may find a way through Reformational principles to recover a sacramental imagination that can appropriately, imaginatively, and richly re-embrace the aesthetics that aid and abet a holistic worship experience (and a holistic faith). The Reformational chink is Augustinian affective anthropology.

Here’s what I mean. With the continued influence of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and now his more accessible simplification in You Are What You Love), more and more folks in Reformational traditions are awakening to the reality that human beings are centrally affective creatures. We operate, most fundamentally, out of what we love. Our affections, much more than our brains, are our life’s behavioral rudder. This is a notion rooted in Augustine, the early thinker who had more influence on Reformational thought than perhaps any other church father or mother.  (I should mention that hopefully this notion is rooted in Jesus…and I think it is [e.g. Luke 6:45].) Augustine’s view of the human makeup (his anthropology) is that we are centrally desiring creatures. Augustine believed that the Bible reveals to us an affective anthropology.

I believe that this anthropology was at least tacitly present in the minds of all the Reformers. But we find it leaking out particularly in the writings of Luther (scattered about), Melanchthon (his 1521 Loci Communes), and Cranmer (his homilies and in his Prayer Book). David Taylor also unearths aesthetic dimensions of Calvin’s theology in his dissertation. (I mention this, because Calvin is often the chief poster boy for the Reformation’s iconoclasm.)

The Aesthetic Portal to New Horizons

What we find in the work of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin are  expressions of affective anthropology that are in tune with some aesthetics. Cranmer, in particular, seemed very comfortable employing the riches of the rhetorical arts. Reading his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books is like taking a journey through Erasmus’s rhetorical teachings: word couplets/triplets, evocative language, etc. Cranmer’s poetic prose was an intentional use of the art of language to engage the senses and emotions of the worshiper.

Cases like these help us to see that while it is fair by and large to call the Reformation iconoclastic, even the Reformers understood that aesthetics were a gateway to help form the sacramental imagination of the people of God. Could it be, then, that we can re-enter some much needed discussions about the aesthetic and pastoral use of visual arts (lighting, projection, color, haze, etc.), through the Reformational portal of affective anthropology? Could it be that Protestantism’s historic emphasis on affective spirituality will open up fresh pastoral discussions about visual aesthetics that neither remain in the superficial realm of pragmatics nor pharisaically dismiss all such talk as blind idolatry?

Not everyone will buy into this, but I, for one, am optimistic.

Tuesday
Apr192016

What You Can Expect from Our New Album

In eleven days, we will have a night of worship and release our album down here in Fort Lauderdale. It will be a special night in a lot of ways. For me, it will be the culmination of three hard and wonderful years of ministry as well as the fruit of many more years of songwriting.

What These Songs Have Meant to Us

Julie Anne Vargas and I set out a year and a half ago to begin writing a fresh batch of hymns and worship songs for our congregation. God was pressing certain themes onto our hearts. We gathered a small group of musicians, artists, and enthusiasts together from inside and outside our church and shared our songs with them--a kind of informal singer-songwriter night--to elicit feedback on the front end as we were crafting these songs. We intended to produce an LP, a top-notch full-length record. God had other plans. Shortly after we completed the songwriting process, a seismic bomb blew up at our church and everything unraveled.

Strangely, eerily...well, providentially...Julie Anne and I were discovering that the songs we wrote were the songs that Coral Ridge needed to sing in this season. The last year has been marked by God's gracious hand tenderly stripping us back, exposing our idols, foregrounding our need, and showcasing deeper riches of what it means to be found in Christ and Him alone

The songs of Sacred On Our Tongues all testify to THAT.

What's With the Title?

The phrase, "Sacred On Our Tongues," comes from the opening track's first verse:

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word

We liked the ring of that phrase. There is an incarnational quality to the juxtaposition of "sacred" and "tongues." The title offers a holy gravity which characterizes the feel of every song on the EP--distance and nearness, transcendence and immanence.

The phrase I think also offers a slightly intentional nod to two streams of Christianity that converged on this record--the traditional-liturgical and the charismatic. First, we wrote these songs under the heavy influence of Reformational liturgy and the post-Reformational English hymn tradition. "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)" is a loose setting of Thomas Cranmer's Ten Commandments liturgy at the opening of his 1552 Prayer Book. "High and Lifted Up" is a sung reflection on John 3's exposition of Christ as the bronze snake in the wilderness, with strong poetic leanings into the hymn tradition. "His Be the Victor's Name" is a recasting of our 2013 song, with some significant changes to the Bridge text and to the overall feel of the historic hymn. "All That You Are" is indebted to Joseph Hart's theological vision for "Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy," though it goes in a different direction.

But second, we wanted to offer these songs in rudimentary form to friends outside our tradition--brothers who have long been thoughtfully writing in the more charismatic spheres of Christianity. My friends, Matt Jackson and Daniel Bashta, graciously agreed to work on the project and to put their musical stamp on our demos. They helped us produce the record at 1971 Sounds with David Dalton and Mitch Parks in Atlanta, and I have to say that I'm blown away by what I'm hearing.

So, yeah. I'm hoping "sacred" will grab the liturgophiles and "tongues" will excite the Pentecosmics. But, perhaps the old addage will ring true: aim at everyone, hit no one. Who knows? I'm honestly less worried about who the album will reach and touch. I'm simply grateful to have been a part of creating an artifact that built some bridges across some unlikely boundaries. I think both our traditions will be the better for having worked together on this. 

The Songs

Textually, Sacred On Our Tongues is a powerful mixture of theological depth packed into more lyrical simplicity than I'm used to. Musically, the album is far more lush, cinematic, and immersive. The five songs probably all reside in the realms of atmospheric, in your face, moody pop rock. I think that the producers' arrangement choices are tasteful and fresh. The album's aural color palette is far more brilliant than anything I've produced...I guess that's what happens when you give it over to people who know what they're doing in the studio. Here's the track listing. Follow the links to check out the full text, along with (eventual) charts and lead sheets.

1. Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)
2. High and Lifted Up
3. Sing in Your Love
4. His Be the Victor's Name (2016)
5. All That You Are 

Where to Get It

Sacred On Our Tongues should drop everywhere Sunday, May 1--iTunes, Spotify, etc. For those who purchase music (which we wholeheartedly encourage), we always try to make the lowest prices available at coralridgemusic.com.

Follow Coral Ridge Music:

Monday
Apr112016

Review of The Next Worship, by Sandra Van Opstal

I currently serve in a context of tremendous diversity. In the market just two blocks from my house, I regularly hear five different languages—English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, and French—and more infrequently hear at least another three. The church I serve doesn’t yet look like our city, but it’s making strides. When I arrived in South Florida over three years ago, I knew that praying through how to engage worship in this diverse climate would need to be on the top of my task list.  For this reason, I wish I had Sandra Van Opstal’s marvelous new book, The Next Worship, then. 

And yet, after reading the book, I have become convinced that reflecting on what it means to “glorify God in a diverse world,” as the subtitle states, is something every church should be doing, no matter how homogenous the culture. The Next Worship is for every church and every situation—not just the ones that care about “multicultural worship.” The book strikes a great balance between theory and practicality. Filled with many stories from Van Opstal’s own rich and experienced ministry, The Next Worship grounds its important principles in real-life (messy) situations.

Founded on the Future 

Van Opstal makes the case that engaging diversity in worship is an eschatological imperative. In other words, what we should be about now is grounded in the what happens in the end: “This vision of the end can only be hoped for and lived into by recognizing how far we are from it, and the beauty and awe we will experience when we participate in it” (p. 35). This vision sees a day when all nations are gathered around one throne. The Next Worship is a strong, convincing case that the future “not yet” is (and should be) breaking into our “already.” I want to share those parts of the book that I’ve found most inspiring, compelling, and convicting for my own ministry, in hopes that you might see the value in picking up this unique resource. 

Fresh Scriptural (even Sacramental!) Observations

I was inspired by Van Opstal’s synthesis of scholarship and exegesis of the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 (Chapter 3). She offered important insights into the nuances of ancient Near Eastern culture at play in the parable. For instance, many of the excuses for not attending given by those invited would have been insulting and offensive to the host (p. 57). In fact, it appears that those who desired not to come were conspiring to shut the party down. Our normal read of the parable usually interprets the master’s invitation of those on the margins as the master’s “Plan B,” but certain clues in the text indicate that the master had always intended to invite everyone. He wanted the well-to-do to be seated alongside the marginalized. The point? “The nature of the master is to extend hospitality to all, including those we wish he had not invited” (p. 56).   

Van Opstal then does something that might be surprising to many who converse about “diverse” and “global” worship. She offers, through this parable, a Communion-centric vision of worship. Usually, conversations about diverse worship revolve around leadership and musical style. Van Opstal refreshingly starts not there, but at the Table (pp. 59-60). The Table is where reconciliation begins: “Reconciliation is not something we add to our worship; it is a practice in which we live out our true nature as one new humanity” (p. 61). And now we see the grounds for the conversation—this is why considering diverse worship is important for both multicultural and homogenous churches.

The Prophetic Edge

Throughout the book, there is a prophetic edge to the conversation. Van Opstal points out some of the elephants in the room that typically overshadow conversations like these. Chapter 2, “Is PB&J Ethnic Food?”, exposes some of the biases and ignorance of people like me, who have grown up with the perspective that my (white Western European culture) is the majority culture and therefore gets to constitute what’s “normal.” Her point, which is worth making early, is that we are all ethnic. There is no “normal.”

Hospitality, Mutuality, Solidarity 

The trifecta—hospitality, mutuality, solidarity—is for me the biggest takeaway from The Next Worship. It was an eye-opener. Van Opstal uses these three categories to highlight the ways we go successively deeper into a biblical understanding of what it means to engage in diverse worship in our local bodies:

  • Hospitality  = “We welcome you.”
  • Solidarity = “We stand with you.”
  • Mutuality = “We need you.”

I’ve always heard diverse worship discussed mainly in the first category of “hospitality.” A church’s dominant group welcomes and makes room for members of other groups. But hospitality should move beyond providing appropriate accommodations. A powerful charge: “In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like perpetual guests” (p. 63). Solidarity comes “when we identify with another’s community in the practices of lament and joy” (p. 66). And mutuality exists when we can’t imagine life without one another. 

This mutuality is fleshed out in what was for me the most challenging chapter, on shared leadership. Van Opstal discussed the levels/degrees of shared leadership. I found myself wrestling though what the deepest levels of shared leadership would look like in a context like mine. If I’m honest, that vision might very well be years away, but it’s always healthy to hear voices that remind you of what you should be aiming for. Listen to the challenges:

This level of leadership takes an immense amount of emptying on the part of the worship leader. There is no room for pride, fear or control. This takes more time as well; the process is much more involved and requires trust in planning and synergy and chemistry in the service. The worship leader still takes ultimate responsibility for the time. If it fails, the team leader is responsible. If the experience and practice is a success, all team members share in the celebration for having shaped it. Who wants that job? Not many people, which is why this model is rarely practiced (p. 90).

Beyond the Music, Pastoral Leadership

I’m incredibly grateful, as I said before, that the discussion about diverse worship moves in The Next Worship beyond music to the other elements of the service, especially in Chapter 6. More than that, Van Opstal points out what many miss—namely, that form itself is content, that “form is as meaningful as style” (p. 132). 

Chapter 7 offers a wonderful vision of what long-term leadership looks like, how culture-change in a congregation takes place. Van Opstal encourages leaders to embrace discomfort, to honor legacy (a wonderful counteracting of so much ageism that is a part of the culture of worship conversations today). It really is at this point that I felt The Next Worship moved from being prophetic to being pastoral. It’s here that the process is highlighted—the need for constant interpretation of experiences, the reception of feedback, creating a style and worship sensibility that fits one’s local context (p. 152).

Finally, Chapter 8 gives some marvelous helps for actually training and equipping worship leaders. I'll particularly highlight the discussion on emotional intelligence and self-awareness (characteristics we often lack as worship leaders!). 

One Desire and Lingering Questions

As I mentioned above, The Next Worship is helpfully predicated on an eschatological vision. I think the conversation about diverse worship and reconciliation, though, is further bolstered when we set these things more in their soteriological context. To put it more plainly, I’m so convinced by the aim of this book that I had longed to hear it more explicitly and fully set in the context of the Gospel: because God has reconciled Himself to us, we can be reconciled to one another. This is hinted at in places like p. 62, where Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson are quoted, saying, “Worship is the power that opens us up to the possibility of reconciliation.” What, precisely, is that power in worship? It is the gospel—the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:19).

How might this be fleshed out? In the brilliant discussion on hospitality, solidarity, and mutuality, the gospel tells us that before we offer these three things to others, we are first given these things in Christ. In His incarnation, Christ became more than a visitor; He became “an actual stakeholder in the community” (p. 63). Christ identified with us in our lamentation and joy. And in being united with Him in death and resurrection, we are given a seat at the Trinitarian table. Though Van Opstal hasn’t done this, sometimes discussions about justice and reconciliation highlight Christ as example of these things rather than provider of these things. The former has the tendency to reduce discussions of justice to moralism—a list of "shoulds." The latter, I believe, is the only way reconciliation can be achieved. This is why the soteriological vision of reconciliation is just as important as the eschatological one. In fact, the eschatology of justice is inseparable from the gospel: Paul's big surprise in Romans 3 is that the day of future justice/justification (all the same word group in Greek) has broken in to the "now" (Rom 3:21).

Some lingering questions I have pertain particularly to Chapter 6, on the components/elements of diverse worship. Are there, in fact, some trans-cultural elements and forms that all cultures are inspired and compelled to engage? For instance, Van Opstal quoted Russell Yee: “There is not one complete service even described in any detail in the New Testament, let alone prescribed” (p. 121). While this is true, there really is more to be said when it comes to unpacking the biblical vision for worship’s elements and form. I’ve been challenged by Michael Farley’s article highlighting the ways evangelicals tend to interpret what “biblical worship” is and is not. There, Farley points out that there may be biblical warrant for more elements and (especially) structure than we typically think when we simply look at the New Testament for explicitly prescribed forms. If Farley is right (and I think he is), this has some implications for Van Opstal’s discussion on forms and practices (for instance, in her chart highlighting the difference between a Latino church’s order of service and a White church’s, p. 98). Appendix E (pp. 193-194) does list some of these things, but I'd love to see this discussion fleshed out.

Where the Discussion Might Go From Here

Therefore, I think next steps for “diverse worship” discussions involve honest wrestling through the enculturation of historic, trans-temporal, trans-cultural forms and liturgies, which, according to Farley’s helpful exegetical tips, actually stem from God’s work in the (non-white, non-Western) ancient Near Eastern culture of the Old Testament. If we began this honest wrestling, I believe that every culture would have something (perhaps even highly cherished) in our particular worship experiences in need of revision and sharpening. I guess this is a counter-balance to Van Opstal’s important pastoral advice: “Christians must practice the discipline of acknowledging differences while suspending judgment” (p. 99). Yes, and at the same time (and I know Van Opstal would agree), Christians must also be willing to bring the discussion back around to theological reflection on our cultural practices. Diverse worship, in form and practice, needs to be a constant, Spirit-filled, and ongoing dialogue between cultural practices and the Scriptural authority that gives them shape and credence.

* * * * *

In conclusion, I confess to being a semi-active listener to the discussion on multicultural issues in worship, but I still discern that The Next Worship actually pushes the conversation forward rather than rehearsing the same talking points (as good as they have been).  Furthermore, it’s an incredibly useful text. It doesn’t float in the clouds but offers manual-like strategies, tips, and plans that actually help us on the ground level of ministry. Finally, Van Opstal has convinced me that I can no longer be “semi-active” in these discussions, for diverse worship is our shared context now, and the grace of God compels us so.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and I encourage every one of you to go out and get it! I need it. You need it. If part of our job as worship pastors is to prepare the people of God for eternity, I can't think of a more balanced, helpful, prophetic, and pastoral text than this one.

Purchase The Next Worship on Amazon.

 

Tuesday
Apr052016

The Worship Pastor - Book Update #2

 

(Read the initial post)
(Read Book Update #1)

Book Update #2

It's been a while since my initial post and the first update about the progress of The Worship Pastor. I'm excited to tell you that its now available for pre-order on Amazon, due out on October 11!

Last week, I finished the hard work of doing some extensive indexing for the book (I find indexes valuable for a host of reasons), and Zondervan is in the middle of working on the book layout. As I read through it yet again, I'm very satisfied with the scope and content. The editors did a wonderful job of smoothing out the readability and accessibility, and I love the way the book moves up and down the "abstraction ladder," dealing with things both theoretically and practically. 

Since my last update, I've had a chance to teach on some of the book's content, at a breakout workshop at the Calvin Symposium and then later for a more extended seminar for worship students at Samford University. I'm very pleased with how folks are responding to the ideas I've synthesized. The resonance has confirmed for me that I'm not totally out to lunch!

I'm currently working with a designer who is redoing my graphics to make them look much more uniform. I don't have many pictures and diagrams, but when they appear, let's just say they will be pleasing to the eye.

Thank you all for the wonderful support, excitement, and feedback. Spread the love, and I'll keep you posted.

Friday
Apr012016

Paul's Take on Spirit-Filled, Christ-Centered, Flesh-Killing Worship

O Paul That Will Not Let Me Go

Paul's letter to the Philippians has been haunting me lately. In a well-known section of the epistle, I was surprised afresh by some important links that the apostle compactly makes between worship, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the gospel. He says in Philippians 3:3 (ESV):

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

This is remarkable. I'd like to comment on the context and the grammar. The context is Paul's larger conversation about dealing with a group of people who seem to be infecting some of Paul's early church plants. They're poisoning the well of the gospel's pure water by demanding that true faith is "Jesus plus" something else. This something else is circumcision. With strong rhetoric, Paul calls these folks "evildoers...who mutilate the flesh" (3:2). Paul contrasts the purity of the gospel with what he calls "confidence in the flesh," which he illustrates with his own life (3:4-11). This "confidence" is boasting in what one does for God, what one brings to the table to make God pleased. Paul illustrates this confidence by rattling off a list of good deeds and favorable pedigree. 

We might say that this whole section is an explication of the not-I-but-Christ-ness displayed in Galatians 2:20 (ESV): 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is basically saying that there are two ways to live, either in Christ or in the flesh.

Paul's Connections: Spirit, Jesus, Flesh

With that in mind, we look back at the grammar of Philippians 3:3. He makes a statement ("we are the circumcision") and then strings together three qualifiers (the ones who worship, the ones who glory, and the ones who do not place confidence). These three ideas are strung together by a simple series of "and's," but that shouldn't lead us to conclude that Paul is being stream of consciousness here, simply tacking on one idea to the next. We should see a relationship between these three: what identifies us as the people of God (the true circumcision) is that we worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh. These three things mark us as Christians.

Paul's word for "worship" (latreuō) is a term most often associated with what scholars call "cultic service," or service within the liturgy. When the term is used, in other words, it tends to refer not to general "all of life" worship but to the kind of worship, the kind of "service," we typically offer when we gather with others in corporate worship. Paul is not necessarily pointing to gathered, corporate worship here (latreuō is certainly used in more broad contexts of meaning), but that image is certainly echoing as he uses the word.

What I find remarkable is how Paul connects three ideas we don't always necessarily think are connected: worship in the Spirit, Christ-centeredness, and the theology of "flesh." It's as if Paul is saying "we worship by the Spirit, which is to glory in Christ, which is to put no confidence in the flesh." If this is true, it corroborates what I've said in another post about what true Spirit-filled worship looks like: to make much of Christ. And making much of Christ stands in direct opposition to making much of ourselves. I'm thinking here of worship language in our prayers and songs which tends to place too much emphasis on what we responsively do for God--live for Him, serve Him, give it away for Him, surrender to Him, etc. (Check out how I address this in my various posts on triumphalism.) Too much of this creates a lot of room for "confidence in the flesh," which in turn minimizes "glory in Christ," moving away from what it means to "worship by the Spirit." 

Content, Structure, Grammar: New Depths of "Christ-Centered Worship"

Why do I bring all this up? Because if we are to pursue Christ-centered worship, we need to plumb new depths of meaning. Usually, the conversation on Christ-centered worship begins around content: Do our lyrics and prayers talk about Christ and his saving work of life and death? Great question. Great start. But we need to go deeper.

And when the conversation does go deeper, we thankfully get into talk of structure. Not only must we have Christ-centered content, but we must think about how the very narratival shape of the worship service must be Christocentric--approaching God through Christ. I'm thinking here of historic, trans-denominational, trans-temporal "deep structures" of Christian liturgies which include elements like Confession of Sin, Assurance/Absolution, and the like.

But even here there is still more ground to break in talks of Christocentrality. We may refer to it as "grammar." I'm using the term metaphorically. What I mean is to ask the question of how our language toward Jesus in our songs and structures actually get constructed. The reality is that we can have cross-centered songs and prayers, and we can even have a Christ-mediated superstructure to the worship service, all the while undermining the Message in those features with poorly constructed language...language which allows "confidence in the flesh" to leak in. 

So again, I'll beat this drum. Too much language about my commitment, my response, my works--they begin to shape our "spiritual grammar." I've pointed out in the past that reformers like Thomas Cranmer were keenly aware of worship's grammar and the necessity that justification by faith alone and not by works affect the very "sentence-construction" of our worship. 

Therefore, I want to sound the call again, this time not merely engaging with important theological connections, but actual biblical statments which lend aid to what we're saying here. We've connected these ideas many times theologically, and I think Paul provides us ample warrant here in Philippians 3.

Wednesday
Mar232016

Why EDM Sounds So Liberating

(Originally published in 2014) 

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has taken over pop culture. Its infectious beats, airy synths, signature builds, and explosive climaxes are now a household sound, from car commercials featuring Dirty Vegas, to Maroon 5’s backing track to “Love Somebody,” to the viral “What Does the Fox Say?” Those who outright dismiss EDM as illegitimate art mock its bland repetition, its mind-numbing sameness.  Such critiques miss the subtle nuancing and gentle sculpting that occur over time, and they forget that EDM has a doppelganger in the classical world in minimalism, with composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. EDM is also quickly dismissed in an understandable move of guilt by association, because of its strong ties to the rave culture of drug use and promiscuity. Even so, I believe we can still see something redemptive, even beautiful, even liberating in the art form of EDM. Being well over thirty years old now, EDM has spread its tributaries far and wide into hybrid genres and sub-genres, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the mainstream EDM sound and the surprising, liberating gift it can give us. In this instance, I want us to not theologize on the art but let the art theologize on us. 

In the End…Dance

Almost all histories of EDM trace its roots to the 70s club culture of New York City and the 80s DJ culture of Chicago. EDM’s rhythmic sound came from disco, inheriting the thump-sizzle-pop as its most basic musical building block. It was exported across the Atlantic, amplified in the UK, and then re-given to the US in the 90s, finally emerging from the underground into the mainstream in the new millennium.

The EDM sound is not meant to be enjoyed in a passive recline on velveteen seats of ornate theaters. It is not receptive art but intensely participatory art. When you hear it, you don’t ponder—you dance. Understanding that EDM is inherently dance music is the first step in understanding why it resonates so deeply in the human soul. Dance is the human’s greatest, fullest expression of abundant, overflowing joy. When we are pleased, we smile. When we are kidded, we laugh. When we are exploding with joy, we dance. EDM puts us immediately in the context of what theologians call the “eschaton”—the end that we were built for…an eternal basking the pleasures of God. The Old Testament frequently pairs eschatological joy with dance (e.g. Jeremiah 31:4). EDM feels liberating, first, because it is the sound of the joy that is to come, for which every last human being is hard-wired to hunger.  This makes complete sense of the contexts out of which EDM thrived—the depressed economy of 1970s New York, the hard urban context of 1980s Chicago, and the gloomy streets of 80s and 90s London.

Painting Sound on a Canvas Without Edges

However, not only does EDM point to an eternal future of joy, it brings eternality into the present. Part of what shaped the unending, repetitive sound of EDM was its original context—the club—where the music never stopped. The two-deck, dual-turntable technology, pioneered in the late 1940’s, allowed DJs to blend the end of one song into the beginning of another. In dance clubs, one can literally dance to one, long song that conceivably could have no end.

EDM, unlike other musical forms, which have a more pronounced storyline from beginning to end (think of a sonata or a country song), places the listener-dancer into the playing field of the infinite. Put another way, EDM’s paints on a canvas without edges. It transports us into an eternal storyline. This is why EDM sounds so repetitive. It is an art form expressed in the context of eternity, catching us up in a never-ending loop of joy. The Bible similarly describes eternity as a euphoric repetition of heavenly beings who never cease crying, “Holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8). Perhaps EDM is equipped better than any other art form to help human beings grasp, even for just a second, what eternal rapture feels like.

The “Narrative Arc” of EDM 

But if we stopped with the above, we’d only possess a kind of unspecific, ultimately unsatisfying vagueness with which a Buddhist or, say, Oprah could happily agree. EDM speaks an even better word. Eternal dance is only the backdrop, for within the basic framework of modern EDM now exists a familiar storyline, a generic form. EDM artists today may play with that form, reconfiguring the order or leaving out certain elements altogether, but they all pay homage to the basic “narrative arc” of modern house music. We all know it, whether we realize it or not. A musicologist I was recently interacting with described the EDM narrative as “home, exile, and New Home.” This very simple, basic structure can be heard within the first two minutes of Swedish House Mafia’s “One (Radio Edit).” Listen for these elements in the music. (1) HOME: introduction of the musical theme (0:00-0:09), and development (0:10-0:23); (2) EXILE: beat drops out and it feels “darker” and develops, anticipates New Home (0:23-1:01) with the final build before the “drop” beginning at 0:56; (3) NEW HOME: full beat, the sonic spectrum opens up, it carries the original theme but in a blossomed, fuller way.

This arc is discernible in pop radio hit, “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii.

The reason this narrative arc is significant is that it is the very storyline of the Bible—Creation, Fall, Redemption. And this brings us to the heart of why EDM feels so liberating when we hear it. EDM’s basic structure echoes the story of the gospel—God’s creation of humanity and our home, our rebellious fall and exile, and the redemption of Jesus Christ, ushering us into our new, more beautiful, eternal Home. Some EDM artists would accuse me of imposing my theology on their songs against their intention. I actually think it is the reverse. I am exegeting the story written on our hearts that we were all built to be enamored by, whose main Character and specific plot line were blurred and veiled by our sinfulness but not completely forgotten. The vague gospel story reverberates in all human beings like a fourth-generation echo, which gets stronger and clearer when its original story draws near. EDM feels like what the gospel crystalizes: there is redemption, freedom, and eternal joy to be found in what Christ provides for us, in unbridled grace, by His death and life.

Sonically, this is why the best EDM producers and DJs know how to tease the listener with tantalizingly delayed gratification. They drag the narrative out through false summits—builds that lead to partial gratification, ultimately unfulfilling. Listen to Markus Schulz’s “Loops & Tings,” and you’ll feel many moments of the Promise Land being yanked from you when it’s just within reach.

But when the “drop” finally happens in a song, when the new heavens and new earth are unleashed, it’s always sonic rapture. The ear had been previously deprived of certain frequencies—subterranean lows and sizzling highs—but suddenly it all blossoms. Full bass and kick, wet, sizzling keys with washed out highs, and a saturated mid-range. We finally hear and feel everything we were waiting to hear, meant to hear.

This is precisely how the gospel feels when we truly hear it. All our longings, all the deprivation, all the lost hope, all the unmet expectations and false summits that can’t deliver on what they promise…they all dissipate as the Truth suddenly blossoms in a single, penetrating moment when our heart thumps like never before, resonating to the news that Jesus paid it all and lived it all. EDM feels liberating because it microcosmically echoes in musical form what the Gospel proclaims boldly in sermonic form—Jesus Christ, the answer to everything.

For Meditation and Further Listening

If you dare, take a moment out of life for a ten-minute guided tour of the narrative arc of Deadmau5’s epic song, “Strobe,” whose structure I’ll interpret from the model of the biblical storyline.

Creation (0:00-5:10)

  • 0:00-3:56: Opening motif, a budding creation and a meandering melody
  • 1:40: introduction of low-mid saw; the story gets more dramatic, complex, beautiful, intriguing; other elements (piano, sizzle, strings, shakers) emerge; life begins to “teem”; pulse slowly accelerates into…
  • 3:56: introduction of beat; creation moves, flourishes; a simple kick
  • 4:25: beat gets deeper, then snare enters (4:41), intensifying

Fall (5:11-6:47)

  • the beat drops out, and an eerie stillness
  • the stillness turns into agitation, disruption, uncomfortability, jolting syncopation (5:39)
  • a low-end build introduces the ramp-up; where will all this disillusionment go? (6:21)
  • final build as the “wind” blows in (6:41)

Redemption (6:48-end)

  • full beat, full throttle; the dance begins

For further listening, here are some of my favorite EDM artists who I think are doing extraordinary musical work. I’ll even recommend songs I like, too. (Note: Some of these artists fall into sub-/side-genres that some would classify as offshoots of EDM, but I’ll lump them all together.)

Above and Beyond (“Walter White,” “Sticky Fingers”)
Kaskade (“Lessons in Love,” “Turn it Down,” “Last Chance”)
Deadmau5 (“Some Chords,” “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff – Nero Remix”)
Avicii (“Dear Boy,” “Levels”)
Swedish House Mafia (“One,” “Don’t You Worry Child”)
Skrillex (“Kyoto,” “Ruffneck,” “First of the Year – Equinox”
David Guetta (“Without You,” “She Wolf,” “Bad”)
Daft Punk (“Human After All,” “Aerodynamic Beats”)
Nero (“Promises”)

Here’s a Spotify playlist I put together of all of these. What songs do you love and what artists would you recommend?