For All the Saints

1. For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

3. For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4. For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5. For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

6. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

8. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

9. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

10. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Fight To Be a Church – some suggestions on how to do it

“Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2)

A few days ago I wrote that there is a serious disconnect in the way that most Reformed churches live, between the idea of the church as a living body and place of mutual care, and the reality of spread-out people who have difficulty sharing with and encouraging each other honestly as we struggle to be faithful to Christ. I talked about some of the consequences I see flowing from that and also identified what I think is the simple cause of much of our dysfunction: we don’t see each other very much – don’t get a lot of face time.

I want to suggest now some ways around this lack of face time. In a culture where living 20+ minutes’s drive from one another is normal for friends, family, and church members, how do we live? What will we decide to do? Now, I understand that people are busy – often really busy. And pursuing these things takes time; time you might not be willing to give up. But as with so many things (education, exercise, financial planning), investments now pay off dividends later. In fact, not just later but eternally : “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” (1 Timothy 4:8). Here are some things to think about as we pursue being better Christian friends:

Pick up the phone. Did you know that your phone is capable of instant voice messaging? Not just newer models – the old ones too! For some of us talking on the phone with people who don’t live on the other side of the country feels like a throwback to high school. But I encourage you: try it. As you get used to it, you will find it really rewarding. Call people in your church – see how they’re doing! It is practically free and involves no drive time. Try doing this once a week for a month and see how it goes. Here’s the flipside: if someone from church calls you, pick up the phone if at all possible. But not while you’re driving: I don’t want to do your funeral sooner than I have to.

Just don’t allow distance to be a barrier. I won’t put too fine a point on this. If you live somewhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to get groceries, you should be willing to jump in the car and drive 20 minutes to see friends from church, all the time. Otherwise you are in danger of using distance like the rich in some cities use high walls – to keep people (even your fellow Christians) at a distance.

Quantity time is better than quality time. Not every visit with a friend has to be for intentional, well-planned “activities”. We’re friends, not kindergarten students. Time playing a game, mocking a movie on TV, sitting around and doing nothing but chatting together is priceless. A while back, parenting experts talked a lot about “quality time”. Since then, many have done a 180 and now emphasize “quantity time” instead. Both are important, but I think there should be a bias in favor of quantity. If you have lots of time together, good time together tends to happen.

“Fellowship” should be both leisure time and serious time. Kind of goes with the last point. Lots of unplanned time together with friends is good. But some of our time together should be planned and intentional. Giving our attention to the Word and prayer, to singing some psalms and seriously discussing the gospel makes our friendships fundamentally different from those around us. At the center of our relationships as Christians is the cross of Christ – it is common attention to the gospel that makes us a people, not just individuals. So: Bible studies and times of prayer!

Don’t be a New Englander: just drop in. When I was in seminary Esther and I had a good friend (a classmate of mine) who was a single guy from North Florida. He frequently did something that flummoxed both Esther (raised near Boston) and me (from upstate New York): he just showed up at the door. To visit. Without a purpose. He was a great guy, so we didn’t mind, but we were clearly confused by this behavior, till he patiently explained that in the South, this is not unusual. People just show up at each other’s houses, to say hi and visit for a bit.

Clearly, this is not the way people operate in New England. Back in Pawtucket, many people got rid of their sidewalks (they had the choice by city law) and didn’t have working front doorbells – if I know you, you’ll come to the side door, and if I don’t know you, I don’t want you coming here! Add to this a nationwide “play date” culture, where unstructured play time for kids is out and parents are too protective to let the youngsters wander around the neighborhood, in and out of the neighbors’ houses like they used to. What if we had a culture of just dropping in on each other, at least inside the church?  Given the distance we frequently deal with, you might not want to make special trips all the time (“Uh, sorry, it’s not a good time – my grandma just died and the kids all have a stomach flu.” “But we drove 25 minutes to see you!”). But if you’re in the neighborhood, is it crazy to drop in on each other?

Maybe a good path is as follows. First, be ready for people to drop in any ol’ time. Doesn’t mean the house is in perfect shape. Does mean that everyone has clothing on. Second, tell people that they should feel free to drop in any time. They might not be bold enough to just try it, but if you tell them to, they might. Third, be ready to say no when you really can’t visit. People are legitimately afraid of imposing. If half the time they show up, you say you can’t visit, they’ll know that you’re being honest the other half the time, when you say, “Come on in!” Going along with that, make your visits short unless your host insists. So much for “Dropping In 101”.

Go places where you feel uncomfortable. Just what it sounds like. If the South Side or Central Falls makes you uncomfortable, make a point of driving through them sometimes, and take opportunities to meet people or do business there. If Barrington seems like the other side of the moon to you, go get ice cream there. We serve the King of the earth, and we need to be ready to go wherever he calls us, and trust him to guard our lives and souls. Be honest about your “comfort zone” and make it bigger.

Don’t just help, ask for help. This is another tough one for New Englanders. This is a place where independence, achievement, merit are prized – where small towns stand on their own and refuse to admit the existence of bigger cities nearby (“Are you from Providence?” “No! I’m from Johnston.”) And while people here are incredibly loyal and would do anything to help a friend in need, they also dread asking others for help. It feels weak and lowly; it can be humbling! But do you understand that when you ask for help, you are telling the people you ask that they are important to you? That they are needed? The best times together are often the ones where we tackle a problem side by side – whether it’s your problem or mine.

Eat together. Self-explanatory. My church (at least) can cook and I am grateful whenever anyone feeds me and my family. Have people over on Sundays and weekdays. PB&J if necessary – just do it!

Pray for each other by name. Also self-explanatory. Make a little list of people in your church. If you’re in my church, it really is a little list. Pray for one or two households or individuals a day and you’ll cover the whole church in a few weeks. Doesn’t have to be long, but this is part of how we care for each other, and something we promise to do when someone joins the church. Furthermore, the act of praying for someone changes you: first, by bringing someone to mind that you might not otherwise be thinking about; second, by causing you to put a little effort into thinking about what happiness and a good life would look like for them. I’m telling you, you will change for the better.

Bible study should always touch on praise and repentance. I will get into this in another post – it’s that important. But briefly, Bible studies should not be mainly brain-enlarging exercises: the purpose (telos) of knowledge is obedience.

Finally, if all else fails, move. I hesitate to write this, but I have over the years seen a number of people buy a great house far from their churches and regret it. I am not bringing up the debate about what kind of community (city, suburb, countryside) is best to live in. I’m making the simple point that life far away from your church friends is a massive negative factor, whether you know it or not. It would be better to have a long commute but be close to people from church than vice versa. There is a strength and ability to mutually support one another that can’t be replaced by a great house with a great view. Be careful about where you buy, and hold on loosely to your property. Always be asking whether you are in the best place you can be to serve the Lord and love his people. I would add that this sensitivity to location is extra important for pastors. Churches where people seldom see each other are fragile; churches where people have everyday contact are much stronger.

In case you think I’m making all of this up, I’ll close with a quotation from the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, a 17th century document adopted by the Church of Scotland at the same time as the Westminster Confession:

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

Fight To Be a Church

“And you shall seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace. You shall judge righteously, you shall not respect persons in reproving for transgressions.” (The Didache, Chapter 4)

These words from the anonymous 1st century Christian writer urged believers to see each other often, in order to receive encouragement and, when necessary, rebuke.

Why is it that our church relationships so often go only skin-deep? Christian churches can sometimes feel like the world’s weirdest AA gathering: everyone says they have a problem (sin), but no one actually wants to talk about it. Churches are often places where we talk about the reality of sin – a reality so nasty that the Son of God died to save us from it – but never get real about their own struggles with it.

There are reasons for this, of course. Some churches have the opposite problem: places where the over-sharer is king (or queen); where after-worship conversation, Sunday school, and Bible study are all dominated by soul-baring, and confession to the group actually becomes a stand-in for repentance before God. A lot of people find themselves in a church like that, get burned, and look for the door. It’s understandable that later they’re leery of any sharing of their weaknesses.

But there has to be a third way. The New Testament assumes it. “Confess your sins to one another,” James wrote. The Catholic church took this from the public penance of the early years of the church (closer in spirit to what we think of as church discipline) to the confessional booth of today. There is something right and powerful about sharing our struggles with sin with other believers. And this is just part of what we seem to be missing today. We are not “real” with one another, in an era when online relationships often replace real ones. We do little to encourage one another specifically, let alone speak honestly about matters of sin and weakness.

Now, there are lots of exceptions to this. Lots of people who call or visit the struggling. Further, there are churches where there is “community” that actually becomes toxic – a breeding ground of gossip and dissension. But those considerations don’t change the fact: there is a gap between the teaching of Scripture that the church is a living body, with all its parts working in harmony, and the actual practice of many (if not most) Reformed Christian churches right now.

The missing link between the doctrine we believe and the doctrine we practice is sometimes pretty simple: face time. We don’t see each other enough. As American Christians we mostly live pretty far from each other, and the simple fact is this: when seeing your friends take effort, you see them less. In my part of the USA, driving is effort. Traffic is bad, roads are narrow, distances are exaggerated. Even my stupid driveway is hard to get in and out of.

What’s the cost of seeing our church friends less? Here are a couple:

  1. Without lots of face time, “other” becomes “alien”. We live in different kinds of neighborhoods. Nothing at all wrong with that. But when we basically only see each other at church, the lives of people in other neighborhoods becomes less and less real to us. The idea of spending time there becomes scarier. This is true even for people who have in the past lived in neighborhoods very different from where they are now. And it is true for lower income people as well as higher income people. If you live in an inner city neighborhood, a wealthy suburb can feel like the other side of the moon. This feeling of difference makes us less flexible, less ready to go where our friends live, and less able to love their neighbors (who are, in fact, all of our neighbors). What sociologists call “sorting” (the tendency of people with similar class, income level, race, and political outlook to cluster in various communities) has a spiritual impact.
  2. Without lots of face time, we undermine the genuine diversity of Christ’s body. Okay, I know that’s a weird thing to say. But here’s the deal: the amazing diversity of the church is a good thing only because God has brought it into an even more amazing unity. Animals in zoos have diversity, but not unity. The remarkable thing about the body of Christ is that God has taken people from all backgrounds and all  races and languages and made them into one new people, one new tribe, one new nation. (Perhaps the greatest problem with the denominational system is that it tells lies about the unity of Christ’s church.) Worship is the moment where we perennially renew that relationship with one another, as well as with Christ. But if we don’t see each other much outside of worship, aren’t we guilty of formalism – trying to impress God and others with our worship, but lacking any real spirit behind it? Dinner together is important for family life. But what would you say about a family that silently ate a formal meal together once a week, and then didn’t see each other at all away from the table? If they love each other, they hide it well.
  3. Without lots of face time, the church becomes far less compelling. The friendliness on Sunday mornings, the good mercy work, decent preaching, and general non-weirdness take us a long way. But if, after weeks or months attending, people discover that our relationships don’t go deeper than that, they may lose interest. They discover that we are driven largely by the same things everyone else is: professional advancement, our children’s success, leisure activities and hobbies. In business terms, our culture is our strategy. If our culture is one of undemanding acquaintance, rather than strong friendship, we lose people who (rightly) want real friendship – and gain people who mostly just want a place to worship and learn. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. Without lots of face time, the world becomes more real than the gospel. In the biblical concept, “the world” means the range of sinful choices available to us. It varies from place to place and from age to age, but it still boils down to “the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in possessions”. It becomes harder and harder to see critically the values of people at our workplaces and in our neighborhoods and extended families – to examine them against the values taught by Jesus Christ. If we are talking about work and neighborhood and family pressures with fellow Christians, they will see things we don’t; alarm bells will go off for them that we might not be aware of. All of us need other people to see what we’re not seeing. That is a massive part of being the church. “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [counsel] one another.” (Romans 15:14). 
  5. And this is big: Without lots of face time, rebuke becomes confrontation. If I see people multiple times a week, at church and at my house and riding together places and at the coffee shop, I am talking with them all the time. That creates comfort, and it builds “personal capital”. So when they see the need to call me to account for something, it is not necessarily painful – for them or for me. I can take it; it’s just a small part of time together that includes fun, small talk, encouragement, and silence. But if I see someone once a week or less, rebuke becomes a big deal. A very local pattern of life is assumed everywhere the Bible talks about the church (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20!). Lots of face time is essential if we are to help each other flee from sin. The alternative is that weird AA meeting where we all acknowledge being sinners but no one owns up to any sin.

The Bible talks all the time about the vital importance of our life as a body of believers. But we don’t live as if that is true. This is a particular problem, I would add, for professional men, who often work at a distance from home and who face pressure to spend very long hours producing. But this is not insurmountable. In a few days I’ll talk about some of the ways we can fight back against the alienating, fragmenting forces we all deal with.

A New Song for an Old World, Review Part 3

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?

A New Song for an Old World, Review Part 2

In the last post, reported on Calvin Stapert’s findings when reading some of the early church fathers for insights on music. He found that they uniformly rejected the music of the world around them, deeply tied as it was to paganism, whether explicit (the music of pagan sacrifices and ceremonies) or a step or two removed (the music of the theater and public “spectacles” like gladiatorial contests). The fathers denounce the music of their day as tending to stir up the passions, whether violent or sexual. They sounded, in short, a bit like old-time fundamentalist preachers blasting rock and roll.

So what is the alternative? You will not be surprised to hear from a Reformed Presbyterian pastor that the alternative to worldly music is psalmody – the singing of biblical psalms. But bear with me. There’s a lot more to this than a smug and tired announcement that “we were right all along.” Maybe I can explain best by just throwing out a stack of observations.

(1) Non-modern people don’t “use” music the way modern people do. That is, people without widespread recording and playback technology tend to, um, sing. All day. When they get up, while working, while playing (ring-around-a-rosy?), often at mealtimes, before going to bed. For us, music is something we consume. For most humans during most of time, music is something we make.

(2) The encouragement to sing psalms wasn’t mainly about singing in church: it was an encouragement to soak everyday life in the songs of Zion rather than the pagan alternatives. For weddings, the 145th psalm could be sung, instead of the more sensual pagan standbys. The morning sun and evening lamplighting could be greeted with psalms about God’s rule over days and seasons, or others celebrating his protection of his people. Psalmody was not just (or even primarily) about what was sung on Sunday morning (or other church-y occasions): it was for them what our car radios and iPods and home stereos and elevator music and retail store music are. It was, the fathers noted, proper and right for all people to sing – and would strengthen their hearts and lead them to God no matter what their situation in life.

(3) Further, the lines between psalmody and singing other Christian hymns were a little blurry. Some of the same fathers who most strongly exhorted psalm-singing (notably Ambrose and Chrysostom) also wrote some hymns. At the same time, hymns were viewed with suspicion and at times banned from church worship because they were a powerful teaching tool – in the hands of heretics. Even more than we do, the fathers understood the power of song.

(4) Stapert raises questions about the origin of Christian psalmody. Specifically he questions the assumption (common from at least the Reformation era with its debates over worship) that the synagogues of Jesus’ day provided the early church with its model for weekly worship. Stapert says that there is actually no evidence that singing of psalms was a common part of the synagogue’s activity – at least until a few centuries after the time of Christ. He implies that Christian psalmody may have come first, with early Christians adopting psalm-singing as the mainstay of their musical vocabulary very early on (certainly by mid-1st century, as is evident in Paul’s writing). If he is right, this should point debates over the “regulative principle of worship” in a very different direction. (See my next point.)

(5) For better or for worse, the Puritan-derived “regulative principle of worship” draws a very sharp line between worship and “the rest of life”. If the early church believed in such a line (and the probably did, given their care in excluding the unbaptized from communion), it wasn’t drawn through the middle of music. What was sung within the church was of course to be sung outside the church. I think it’s fair to say that the idea of listening to rock on the way to church, singing psalms during worship, and turning the rock station on again on the way home, would have puzzled if not disgusted our forbears.

(6) The “style” (in the ancient world primarily a matter of “mode”) of music mattered to the fathers. Some styles of music were simply inappropriate: designed to stir up the passions, frenetic, sensual or even sexual – the lyrics were beside the point. They were evidently troublesome – nature taught this. Note that the fathers were not narrow “biblicists” – they didn’t need a verse to tell them what they believed was self-evident. Note further that their observations on style of music reflect continuity with some earlier non-Christian thinkers, including the great philosopher Plato.

I’ll make one or two concluding notes in the next post. I welcome your disagreement, agreement, or head-scratching. This is a book that has my head reeling.

A New Song for an Old World, Review Part 1

We do not see ourselves clearly. We also do not see our culture clearly. This problem is particularly acute for 21st century American Christians, because though we know that there is a history to our faith (after all, this is AD 2012), we have little idea of what that history is. Just as we don’t understand ourselves without knowing other people well, and we don’t understand our families and homes without seeing other people’s families, we cannot see our age with any accuracy unless we give our attention to other ages.

This is true in all kinds of areas, one of them being music. We are in a time of great confusion among Christians about music. Not only confusion about what music to perform in the setting of church worship (psalms? hymns? choruses? a cappella? organ? rock band? jazz?) but larger confusion about the meaning and value of music. Does the style of music matter? Are there good and bad styles of music? We live in a time saturated with music, much of it full of nasty stuff, and we don’t know how to think about that. Is it “just a song,” without power to shape lives, or is it more? What does listening to a song do to us?

It’s hard to approach these questions head-on. It helps to leave our own era and listen in on the conversations of Christians in another time on the same subject. Maybe human nature and the Christian struggle to be faithful don’t change as much over time as we might expect. And it might be extra helpful to listen in the the church in ancient time that is more like our time than you might think – Christians in the Roman Empire, a time when Christianity was clearly a minority and paganism powerfully shaped the surrounding culture.

Calvin Stapert is a music professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He is not a scholar of the early church, but he has been reading the “church fathers” (pastors, bishops, and theologians of the first five Christian centuries) for years, and has put his notes together in A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

Most of the book gives a bird’s eye view of the lives and teachings of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom. These men are separated by language (Tertullian and Ambrose are Latin-speakers, Clement and Chrysostom are Greek-speakers), region (different parts of North Africa, Italy, Syria, and Greece), and varying degrees of friendliness toward the pagan world (Tertullian radically rejecting it, Chrysostom hardly less so; while Clement and to a lesser degree Ambrose embraced non-Christian learning and culture and affirmed all they could). They are also spread out over three centuries (AD 200s-400s). The differences really are striking at times, especially between contemporaries Tertullian and Clement. While Clement was an expert on Stoic philosophy, Tertullian famously raged, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, or the Academy to do with the Church?” While some viewed the non-Christian world as a place where God’s light was to be found (though less clearly than in the gospel of Jesus Christ), others approached it as a cesspool to be rejected and avoided.

With these radical differences in the overall approach to the pagan world and its politics, literature, and philosophy, we might expect similar differences in the fathers’ thoughts on music. This is actually where the book gets interesting. Across the board, the Fathers were consistently antagonistic toward the music of the pagan world. They spoke of it much like an old-time Fundamentalist preacher might speak of rock and roll: it is frenetic, it is demonic, it is sexual, it is intended to stir up the passions (not merely the emotions, but ungodly desires taking control of the listener).

There are differences between now and then, of course. Much of that ancient music was explicitly tied to pagan ceremonies and practices. Pagan ceremonial music was designed to (1) cover up any other sounds, (2) shoo away interfering demons, and (3) interest the gods in the ceremony going on down below. Little  of modern music is intended for those purposes. But it was also intended to excite the passions and take hold of the listener, something that our music is absolutely intended to do. Like our music, theirs focused on themes of illicit sex, partying, jealousy, and violence. Another difference we might point out is that we usually listen to recorded music (I have some thoughts on this too), where their music was always live. But even in our culture, recorded music is second-best to live events (like rock concerts), or events where music is played, loud, to a crowd (like a dance party or a rave).

I am summarizing pretty severely, but I think you get the point. The early church (or their representatives, these different church Fathers) viewed the music of the pagan world around them as powerful, spiritual in nature, and damaging.

So what’s the alternative?

Calvinism and Complex Systems

Just as myths of progress or decline are bunk, complex systems are extremely fragile and basically unpredictable. Consider “globalization” –  the huge increase in movement of people, goods, and data around the globe.

Most of what is in your house was probably made overseas, likely in Asia. Your friends and neighbors are likely from three or more continents. You are reading this via a communications network that offers nearly instantaneous text, graphic, voice, and video connection to at least parts of every country in the world. Millions of people travel on airplanes from one part of the world to another every day – TSA shoe weirdness notwithstanding.

We don’t just cope with globalization, we benefit from it. We are all wealthier for it; our lives are enriched and blessed by contact with people from other cultures; we certainly enjoy it. (Do you like coffee? Olive oil? Chocolate? How about clothing?)

Globalization and its twin, urbanization, are not new, but they have accelerated over the last century. Historically, these processes come in waves. The Roman era was relatively “globalized” (big empires tend to be that way); the Medieval period was not. As the brilliant, conceited Nassim Taleb would say, a globalized world exists in Extremistan, and a world of isolated towns and people groups exists in Mediocristan. Huge, curve-wrecking things (good and bad) happen in the first world; not a whole lot happens in the second. The Black Death swept through a Europe that was relatively densely populated and well connected; it left behind a reduced population, mostly in isolated towns and villages. Electronic funds transfer allows staggering wealth to be moved and created; it also creates wide-scale fragility and space for tremendous fraud.

Christianity is not the enemy of globalization, even if Christians sometimes are. Some think Pauline Christianity is actually at the root of the phenomenon, and I cautiously agree. The globalization we know is not the intended effect of the Gospel, but it is a possibility created by it (along with constitutional democracy and the idea of human rights).

But take seriously for a moment the fragility of this globalized, urbanized world. The following are a few things that may (or may not) radically or suddenly alter the world in which we live:

  • an epidemic of easily transmitted, drug-resistant disease (despite India’s denial, there is strong evidence of totally drug resistant tuberculosis in that country’s slums)
  • climate change and its various forms and effects, including desertification and migration of tropical insects into temperate zones
  • a major NBC (nuclear, biological, or chemical) attack by a non-state actor – or a series of such attacks
  • near total die-off of bees
  • collapse of biodiversity – including heirloom agricultural products – under pressure from multinational “Big Agra” corporations like Monsanto

Any of these is enough to keep us up at night. The post-9/11 drive by the US government to create a womb-like existence for its citizens and the world is on its face a ridiculous one. In nearly every one of these scenarios the USA, its policies, its confidence in its own rectitude, and its collusion with monied interests, is a key factor. Or perhaps I should say our policies, our confidence, our collusion, for I am an American and share in my nation’s sins.

“How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?” To recognize that the world is full of threats that may fall without warning, and that are outside of my control to prevent, is simply to drop the unwarranted self-confidence that Americans and Pelagians have always had in common. There are only two alternatives for an intelligent human: despair and fatalism, or else trust in a sovereign God. Either history is just one damn thing after another, or else “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”

If the God of the Bible is ordering the events of history according to his kind and redeeming plan, there can be no such thing as a random event, but there can certainly be events that defy our expectations. We think that our houses and nations and institutions will last forever, but he is not bound to do what we think. We can think that oppressors will always remain in power, but he is not bound by that either. We can pretend to discern the full curve of history, but we do not.

How do we know that there is a personal God who orders the events of history according to a redemptive plan? We could point to the Scriptures as a whole for evidence but there is a central event which comprises God’s “yes” to his creation, and that is the resurrection of his Son. When Jesus Christ was raised, in a real sense, God’s love for his creation was both attested and instantiated. Through him all things were made, in him all things consist, and in his resurrection love, and not rejection, was spoken to all things.

So we amillennial Calvinists sleep at night. We may die tomorrow, and the nations and communities we love perish with us, but: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

Wow, Predicting the Future is Hard!

Make that “impossible”. Because I’m a Christian, I believe that God can do the impossible. But accurate foretelling of large-scale events is something that belongs to the office of prophet, not the office of journalist, or tech guru, or economist.

Built into history-writing is a temptation to plot events beforehand. This can take the form of a myth (controlling story) of either progress or decline. And, interestingly, one person’s progress is another’s decline. So you can read post-Enlightenment Western history as a story of sexual liberalization, with occasional bumps (i.e. the Victorian era). Depending on your ideology, this is either great or awful.

People, religious or non-religious, love myths of progress and decline. I have good friends who are gripped with nostalgia for a more conservative past, and others who are starry-eyed optimists, looking forward to a world that is increasingly safe for unbelief.

We have to reject myths of progress or decline, Christian or otherwise. Through the ages they have offered innumerable false positives. The world is perennially about to end or be transformed, due to divine judgment or environmental disaster. The Age of the Spirit, or the Age of Aquarius, the Second Coming, Nuclear Winter, or the unstoppable tide of Secularization are always at hand. Except that they aren’t. And if you’re going to take your Christianity at all seriously, you have to reject all claims to know the moment at which history will resolve.

This is when it’s good to be an amillenialist and a Calvinist. The first term means simply this: Jesus reigns, now, above the chaos and the “wheat and tares” dynamic of the world. The Lord is enthroned above the flood. We are neither hoping perversely that the world goes down the tubes so that Jesus will hurry up and start reigning, nor calling every technological and social improvement a triumph for the kingdom. The kingdom grows – oh yes – but not in the neatly quantifiable ways we may think. And its full revelation will not the the result of a gradual process, nor its citizens everyone we might think. Many will say in that day, “Lord, Lord!” and but turned away – and the last shall be first.

More on the second term later. Suffice it to say that times may be harder or better for specific people; things will change; but we cannot see the curve from where we stand. Not progress. Not decline. Just different. And the same.

Abortion on Demand

The following is adapted from a note I recently wrote to a friend on the topic of abortion. More specifically, I was responding to this article.

Reducing the rate of abortion is a lot more complicated than simply overturning Roe v. Wade or defunding Planned Parenthood. The evangelical solution du jour for everything is the political one. Somehow if you just defund something that is publicly funded, or make something illegal, it will go away.

It’s good that the author gets into the complexity of abortion rates and stats, although I wish the RAND Corporation article he cites had given some of the social history of abortion in Russia. And it was good to note that illegality has not stopped the abortion rate from being very high in Uganda (alongside an astronomical fertility rate: 6.24 births per woman according to the World Bank). Marvin Olasky’s social history of abortion in America estimates that there could easily have been 100,000 abortions a year among prostitutes alone in the United States around the time of the Civil War (1.8 per prostitute annually). That puts the abortion rate in 1860 in the neighborhood of the rate in 2000. (Estimating 100,000+/total population of 31m in 1860 vs. 1.31m/total pop. of 249m in 2000.) So this far more complicated than simply outlawing abortion.

But there are very real problems with the article. First, the author is not believable in his claim to be concerned. Evangelicals often sound alarmist: this is because they are genuinely and legitimately alarmed. The author here is not. “I value life” – the lives of various people around the world. “I also value the nascent human life of the unborn.” Ah, that fatal adjective. This cell mass is on its way to being a human life; by implication, I am on my way to valuing it alongside lives I already consider human.

Second, maybe I missed this, but why won’t Roe v. Wade reduce the number of abortions? Roe v. Wade outlawed states from making laws prohibiting abortion (with the exception of late-term, viable children). If it were overturned tomorrow there would be a raft of new state laws restricting or prohibiting the practice within months. Some of those laws – such as those requiring women seeking abortion to view ultrasounds of their children (and these laws have repeatedly been challenged, and sometimes struck down on the basis of Roe) – are exactly aimed at moral suasion rather than simple prohibition. For certain, some women in a no-abortion state will go out of state, and others will seek an illegal abortion. But others will take an abortion off the table as an option. Ease of access + official approval = nudge toward a decision.

That gets to the third and maybe biggest problem. Planned Parenthood is a powder keg because its existence and funding represent the stance that abortion is a public good. The secular liberal academic, media, and political establishments (and they are mostly secular and mostly liberal, even if Fox News says so) are of the opinion that unborn children are not human, and access to abortion is a human right. (There are rare, honest people like Naomi Wolf who say that an unborn child is human, and that they still have a right to abort.) Meanwhile members of the white upper class hardly ever practice what they preach. They use contraception carefully, have fewer partners, and marry. You know the stats. Abortion is far more common among poor and racial minority women than among middle income or white women.

There seems to be an assumption here that bad behavior is inevitable among the proles, so we had better make sure they can clean up after themselves. Won’t fewer unwanted poor children benefit society as a whole? Further, the gains of the sexual revolution are so important, so precious, that we will never publicly question them.

Evangelical Christians are often very removed from the everyday world of modern cities, filled as they are with educated, sexually polymorphous, and diverse people. That reality wears on those who live in the middle of it (as difference inevitably does). But evangelicals are also closer to the lower/working class world of babies and work and welfare and dysfunctional extended families than many of us are, and they have correctly sniffed out a major problem with funding Planned Parenthood and not striking down Roe: the effective, powerful message these send that sexual promiscuity is fine, just as long as you don’t let it get in the way of your (economic) dreams. At the end of the day, anything goes, as long as Moloch (or actually, Mammon) gets his due.

Ending abortion is far more complicated than simply striking down Roe or defunding Planned Parenthood. But those are important steps to take, if we are ever to seriously pursue the goal (voiced by Presidents Clinton and Obama) of reducing the number of induced abortions in the United States.

Counterintuitive Ways to Fight Evil

Looked today at Romans 12:9-21, for which the exhortations, “Abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” form bookends. Here it is not the call to fight evil that is amazing, it is the method: you defeat evil not with anger and aggression, but with good:

  1. Warm, genuine love for fellow believers. “Let love be genuine … Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
  2. Fervent service. “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
  3. Practical love for others. “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
  4. Humble love for others. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
  5. Peace with those outside. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
  6. Love instead of revenge. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Can we summarize this? I’ll try: for God’s people, fighting evil looks like internal love and external peaceableness. For someone with a very robust view of Christ’s kingship and coming judgment, Paul places a surprising emphasis on taking care of our own and minding our own business. What might this look like?

The practical everyday life of the church will be warm, affectionate, attentive, quick to meet needs, and hospitable; rather than formal, distant, self- or family-centered, holding each other at arm’s length.

In our dealings with outsiders we will be quick to agree whenever possible, ready to back down from a fight when we can do so in obedience to Christ, always taking our personal feelings out of the picture. Because we are confident that Jesus Christ has both received the judgment for our sins, and will bring perfect justice to bear one day, we can forbear and forgive when we are wronged.

We can suspend judgment of others (inside our outside the church), an act of faith in the only just Judge to do his job. We can love the unlovely – warmly, affectionately, practically, humbly – because we are loved.