So what’s the “take home”? How do we make good use of the Christian reflection in the ancient world, in the modern world? A couple of thoughts follow.
The fathers wanted the music of God to infiltrate the everyday life of Christians in a mostly pagan society. We argue about just how far we will allow the music and other cultural productions of our mostly pagan society to infiltrate the church of God. You tell me: which era is heading toward more obedience to the gospel, and which one is heading toward less?
Music is only part of the picture here. There is a tremendous tug-of-war between “relevance” and “witness against” within Christianity in every era. Within the Reformed (or at least Calvinist) spectrum today, we have swung hard toward relevance. Party hard, make and drink beverage alcohol (unless you’re a Baptist or something), listen to every kind of music, consume culture, spend money on sporting events, fights, etc. There is almost no cultural production so filthy or banal that some chin-stroking pastor does not watch/pay for/listen to/eat/drink/ cheer/endorse it, all the while pretending to be unaffected by what they are taking in. And I am one of them. I have my limits, but they’re fairly obvious (i.e. on-screen nudity and horror movies). In terms of cultural consumption, I am a Christian on Sunday mornings and during family worship and personal devotions, and a pagan much of the rest of the time.
The fundamentalists have it wrong: total disengagement from the pollution of the world is impossible. Paul said so: “I do not say to avoid the immoral of the world, for then you would have to leave the world!” Good thing we’re saved by grace. But there is another way of dealing with the fact that we live in a culture dominated by pagan ways of thinking and acting.
That other way is the way the fathers called for: we disentangle ourselves from the culture of the world by crowding it out. We “hate what is evil” by “clinging to what is good” (Romans 12:9). We avoid that which is damaging (which is a larger category than we would like to admit); we admire what is good and healthy. Further, we go where the beautiful leads us: to God and his New Song, the gospel of Jesus Christ. We make the practices of Christian worship – prayer, learning and meditating on Scripture, and psalmody – the structure of our everyday lives.
Put another way, perhaps the path is not to imitate the spectacles of the world – the fights, the rap concerts, the baseball games, the feature films – swapping a strand of Christianity for some of the originals’ DNA. We shouldn’t be borrowing their aesthetics and digging up Christian sports and music stars to parade. Is contextualization inevitable? Of course, and we shouldn’t deny it. When we do we smuggle cultural content in under the guise of “being biblical”. Like the tunes of the 17th century European psalters are somehow God’s own. One of Stapert’s final chapters is on Augustine, the great North African bishop and theologian. He notes the bishop’s wisdom in recognizing that the church’s music (again, predominantly psalms) can itself become an occasion for idolatry. I really like that point.We should hold what we know to be cultural loosely, while recognizing that something being “cultural” does not make it “neutral”. All cultures contain beauty and ugliness, that which lifts up and that which degrades. And even the beautiful and uplifting can become temptations. Wisdom and discernment turn out to be necessary, something the fundamentalist mind is uncomfortable with.
Every community has a spectacle at its center. It could be a traditional village with its rites of passage and festivals. It could be a fan “nation” with its games or shows or conventions, and its matching shirts and season tickets. At the center of culture is worship: beholding and praising, then meditating on and enacting. The “missional” crowd make much of Paul’s “all things to all people”. But I don’t think it means everything they think it means. Of course there is cultural flexibility, and we must not mistake every detail of our Christian practice for gospel truth. But the good news of Jesus Christ creates a culture. A God-centered, subversive culture. It was foreign to the Corinthians, to the Franks, to the Cyrenes. It was even foreign to the one people to whom should have been native: Israel. Believing the gospel will make foreigners of us: there is no helping that. Why would we nurture schizophrenia, trying to keep the cross in focus but wrapping it in worldly “spectacles”? Perhaps the right path is to recognize that in worship we confront the true spectacle: the cross of Jesus Christ. And that each week when we confront that cross in the Lord’s Supper and in the preaching of the gospel, we are renewed as a community.
I am not left with a comfortable, happy conclusion. I feel rightly discomfited – kind of like when I read James (“Howl and weep!”). I am prodded to create a deeper culture of prayer and psalmody in my house and perhaps neighborhood, and certainly my church; to be much more critical of what music I allow into my car and music player. Maybe this is part of the suspicion toward “the world” that we are told to nurture; part of the way we stop being merely big green plants and start bearing fruit?