Quality vs. quantity in faith

As usual, posts happen when you’re not looking for them.

In this case, I was just going to leave a comment at Dustbury about the dreck-infested genre of modern Christian Contemporary Music, when it got away from me. So I rounded it up and dragged it back here where it won’t dig up the neighbor’s peonies.

You see, this is one of the many small things about which I have too much thought invested. As a Catholic, my Sunday mornings are usually spent in an exercise in true mortification: worshiping my God while trying not to hate modern Catholic hymnists. Good Lord, but this stuff is largely unsingable.

Now, take the bathetic, tepid, squishy-marsmallowy of what is laughingly called “worship music” in the modern Catholic Church, turn it up to eleven, and play it on a radio station exclusively devoted to the stuff, and you have Christian Contemporary Music.

Barf.

Now, hey, if you don’t like it, don’t listen, right? And I don’t. Praising Jesus in song is great, and I probably do too little of it. I probably do too little in all areas of my life, being your typical sinner. But there’s three things at issue here, three thoughts that reveal themselves as flawed attempts at being a better man of faith, and CCM gets right to the heart of them. The first thought is that if I love Jesus, then I will do nothing but Jesus-y things all the time. The second thought is that if I praise Jesus, then the quality of my praise is of no import. The third thought is that to praise Jesus is always a positive, affirming experience.

The Third Oops (faith is always positive and affirming) is perhaps the easiest to dispense with.  Friend of the Blog fillyjonk says it best in the comments:

Another thing I like about some of the older hymns? They seem more prone to recognize that Christian life is not all rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes I wonder how many people are driven away after getting the impression that having down times or difficulties is somehow not congruent with following Christ…

Two thumbs way up. The Bible itself has some horrible things done to (and in some cases, by) believers. In fact, there are very clear warnings that “The world will hate you because of Me.” But there is also consolation, such as John 16:33: “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.”

That’s a reason to praise, but it’s also a reason to sing the blues every once in a while. The best artists recognize this. The CCM movement seems to think that there’s no dark nights of the soul, to judge from the relentless “we’re positive and uplifting yays!” messaging.

In fact, my ire with my Church’s happy-clappy 70’s songbook stems in large part from this. I mean, we make a pretty big deal of Lent and sacrifice. We get burned ashes smudged into our foreheads once a year by a guy who tells us “You are dust and to dust shalt thou return.” Fifteen minutes later we leave the building to the strains of “We Believe” or some such pablum.

Do I think we need more uplifting culture? Of course. It’s great to have the option. I also think that “uplifting” becomes dishonest when it’s the only part of the message we’re getting. We leave the impression that belonging to Christ means that we simper our way through life as if nothing was ever wrong with it, or with us. Maybe we tsk-tsk about some heartbreak, but we always end up with how blessed we are. Or else, we act absolutely no different from anyone around us, leaving the impression that our faith results in no real and lasting benefit or change in our lives. Neither of these are winning strategies. Also, neither of these things are even remotely true.

Onward to the previous point. (I swear that should have made sense.)

The Second Oops (the quality of praise is irrelevant) is perhaps where we as believers do the most damage to our own cause. The Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. Well, how we doing with that?

There’s one thing that’s true of all Loves: they delight in finding a true expression of the Beloved. Robert Parker’s Spencer expressed it well in the book “Early Autumn,” in a scene where Spencer and Susan are watching a Celtics game. Susan wonders why the Celtics crowd cheers when a visiting player makes a fine play and scores; Spencer explains first that the player used to be a Celtic, but moreover, it was a great play, and a true fan appreciates good basketball.

Lately, believers seem to be getting this backward. We act as if appending the name “Jesus” to whatever we’re writing or singing or etc. improves the quality by default. And the hilarious thing about this is, we never do this anywhere else. Even the thought of it would be ridiculous: “I’m driving my car in Jesus’ name, you can’t give me a ticket! I’m knitting in Jesus’ name, the sleeves don’t have to have to be the same length! I’m baking in Jesus’ name, so it doesn’t matter that the cake collapsed in on itself like a chocolatey black hole!”

Or to put it in terms I used above the jump: if you don’t like it, don’t listen… and I don’t. This is music meant specifically to appeal to me as a believer and I can’t stand the stuff. So I ask again, how are we doing with that “make disciples” thing? Who is going to listen to this mewling milquetoast nonsense and say, “Sure, sign me up for a lifetime of thinking exactly like that!” Who’s going to follow Christ if they think that they’ll be forced to pretend to enjoy this pferdkaese?

One objection I can think of – indeed one that my own wife will sometimes lodge with me – is that these are people expressing their love for God as well as they can and I shouldn’t put them down. To which I have to reply, sure they are and God love them for it, but why inflict that on the rest of us? If they’re not that good at it, why are they doing it professionally? I love hockey; I’m not trying to play for the Chicago Blackhawks.  More than that, I’m not trying to say that my hockey league is more wholesome than the NHL so buy tickets to watch us and not them. Yet for some reason, the moment the name of Jesus gets involved, the concept of skill and craft goes right out the window?

I own albums by Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer. I don’t own them because they are believers, but because they made great music. I own albums by tons of other folks too, and when they occasionally stray into being explicitly Christian, it is, unsurprisingly, immeasurably better than most of the simpering song-and-praise brigade.

This gets us to the top of the list, the First Oops: if I love Jesus I will do Jesus-y things all the time. And this is the tricky one, because it’s true, but not in the way that people usually make a go of it.

True tale: when I was a younger adult, I considered one of those Covenant Communities that you may have heard of… groups of believers choosing to live, work, and socialize together. Sadly, one of the things that tends to happen there is that they tend to get culty about non-essentials. It starts out with living for Jesus, and if you’re not careful, it ends up with living for not reading Car and Driver because they review cars made in countries that oppress Christians.

These folks, it should be said, are almost uniformly pleasant and unplastic, but they still had a deal about rejecting unChristian music, by which they meant anything that wasn’t explicitly written for church.

I couldn’t quite delineate my objection to it at the time, but now I can: it’s inhuman. NOBODY DOES THIS. Nobody lives their entire waking moment as if they were in church. Even the saints, who are disconcerting in their otherwordliness, still engage the world on some level. They don’t stop eating and showering and taking out the garbage, they just do all those things differently, to the glory of God. Merely being unworldly for the sake of the thing usually leads to humbuggery and sanctimony, not holiness. In the Bible, when Jesus rises from the dead, He has an actual body, which still bears the wounds He received at His death. He’s still Incarnate – He doesn’t merely set aside or outgrow His real humanity.

That’s what kept me out of that particular group. It wasn’t for me. Again, I stress that it has been a good home for some folks I’ve known, and they weren’t humbugs or fakes. I also appreciate the larger idea behind their musical guidelines, which is that if it’s an active hindrance to living for God, you ought to free yourself from it.

The “anything not for Church is unhelpful” thought, however, is itself unhelpful. The point of belief isn’t to get all of us into the Faith, but to get the Faith into all of us, into every part of us. Theologian and author Frank Sheed used the analogy of the sun: being a believer isn’t like seeing all the same things that a skeptic would, plus the sun in the sky; it’s seeing everything in the light of the sun, seeing them transformed from vague shadowy stuff to detailed, vivid landscapes and colors. Likewise, believers don’t merely have God in the picture like another thing, but God is IN all the things, is the frame and the canvas without which no things at all would exist.

I can play hockey in such a manner as to give credit to my God, without breaking out the sticks and pads in the middle of the second reading. (Maybe wait until the recessional, and cross-check the “folk choir” into the side of the pulpit. Surely that would be an act of corporal charity…) I can also give glory to God without having to listen to nothing but K-GOD on my commute.

(credit to Dustbury for linking the original article from Patheos)

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3 thoughts on “Quality vs. quantity in faith

  1. Marie February 27, 2013 at 9:41 am

    1) I love Jars of Clay. Because they make kick-ass, wonderful music that touches upon my needs for uplifting (sometimes), hopeful (sometimes), realistic (sometimes), and dark-but-there’s-a-light-somewhere (sometimes). All in one. Yay.

    2) Something I think that Catholics, in particular, get and get well (if sometimes to an extreme) is that “belonging to Christ means that we simper our way through life…” is absolutely FALSE. That belonging to Christ means belonging to the Cross, and to the crucifixion, not *just* the glory of the resurrection. Nothing proves that more to me than the Triduum and our focus on the Lenten season that precedes the Easter season… thoughts?

    3) (Sidebar: I can’t believe you considered a covenant community. Dang. Tell me more.) BUT… here’s another thing that I think you nailed. It is correct that we are called to not be OF this world. THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE CAN PRETEND WE’RE NOT IN IT. I have encountered far too many who are trying to approximate the idea of not living in the world despite the fact that our earthly existence demands and requires that we do, in fact, live IN the world. And we’re not really called to be passive in it. We’re called to live Christ… in the world. Yeah, it ain’t easy. That doesn’t make it impossible.

    I could go on for ages. I’ll stop. Excellent work, Nightfly.

  2. thefish302013 February 27, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Every. Freakin’. Sunday. AND at Tuesday morning Bible study. It’s such a temptation to uncharitable thoughts. And then the organist will bust out some Bach for the recessional, and my brain cries out, “Can’t you hear the difference??”

    Where are the hymnals of yesteryear?

  3. Robbo March 2, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Amen, Brutha.

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