I Looked for a Musician to Stand in the Gap

I’m the music director at my church, my wife is one of our pianists. We and another pianist, a very dedicated and skillful lady, recently attended a Majesty Music Conference in order to gain instruction and, frankly, inspiration for a church music program (our own!) we felt was flagging. It’s my fault entirely, of course, that this was the case. But we all needed help. We were not disappointed.

I came away proud of my alma mater, because almost every person teaching sessions was a graduate of BJU. I have heard Warren Cook and his wife Jean perform and conduct music on countless occasions, but I’d never heard them speak or teach. They were nothing short of stupendous. I was in awe, learned 4.3 tons, and could not stop laughing. I’m so grateful for their gifts and training and experience—and their willingness to share it with a small group whose (very reasonable) registration fees must hardly have covered the workshop leaders’ expenses. Somehow I doubt they were in it for the money. The others who presented did very well, too. The Majesty staff served my church faithfully with the gifts the Lord has given them. Five weeks on, after our church’s first ever choir “performance,” I’m so grateful.

I got tips on leading congregational singing, using group vocal techniques for choirs and ensembles, and planning out various aspects of church music ministry. My wife and our other pianist got tips on modulation, sight-reading, and children’s ministry. The three of us spent all our free time together playing through new music and talking about how to revamp our music ministry. It was very stimulating and encouraging. I learned that three shots in three arms is worth six shots in one.

Now to my point in this post.

A Question

On the second and final day of the conference, in the very last session, we had a Q&A with the workshop leaders as panelists. They provided more wisdom and inspiration: they appeared to be a nearly inexhaustible well. Until I asked what I might call a stumper:

Who in this generation is writing to defend and promote the generally conservative worship tradition of Majesty, the Wilds, and similar institutions?

The panelists all looked at one another. After a bit, someone came up with the name of a practitioner, not a writer. Someone from the audience shouted out a name I did and do know: my friend Scott Aniol. That was it. Two names. One whose writing just hasn’t made it onto my radar and another who, if I may speak a little too frankly, writes better for leaders than for church people. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for you, Scott. But I think you’d agree that we need more voices with different gifts for reaching different audiences.

A Gauntlet

I’m throwing down a gauntlet and writing an uncharacteristically personal plea: church musicians my age who have inherited the worship traditions I’ve inherited, I ask you, please write! I’m not asking you to write to tell me that everything in our tradition is good. (I’m hoping, however, that you won’t tell me it’s all bad!) I feel as if my crowd of Christians is losing its “right” to have its musical tradition, given that people my age have done almost nothing publicly to defend it, promote it, and apply it to our changing cultural realities.

I remember asking my seminary profs on a panel many years ago—custodians of the same overall conservative tradition—something like this: “If we expect Kazakh churches to use musical styles appropriate to their Kazakh cultural situation, and Botswanan churches to use musical styles appropriate to their Botswana cultural situation, where should Americans look in our culture for appropriate musical styles for worship?” I love my profs, and they’re all 14.3 times smarter than I, and I don’t know what they’d say today, but I was underwhelmed by the non-response I received. And these are people I’ve never stumped before or since.

An Insecurity

As I’ve checked around with youngish pastoral-type men my age who have experienced the same formational influences I have, my sense is that many feel the same way I do: they are uncomfortable with heavily contemporary, performance-oriented, pop-music-styled music in church; they are comfortable, more or less, with the worship tradition they’ve inherited. We have a basic sense that “don’t be conformed to the world” ought to apply to worship music, and this is bad (not to mention hokey). But they don’t buy all the reasons traditionally given for maintaining our conservative traditions. Rock-music-wilts-plants just isn’t persuasive anymore, if it ever was. Guilt-by-association doesn’t work, either, because that sword cuts both ways: the internet makes the weirdnesses and sins of classic hymn writers just as easy to discover as the doctrinal problems of Hillsong.

As a friend of mine wrote to me recently,

I’m decidedly conservative in my music styles, especially for worship, but aside from [the] “don’t-worship-like-the-world” argument, none of the others have really been convincing in the long term. I really wonder how much of my position is merely tradition and preference, and I have a certain sympathy for people who no longer hold to the same standards. If I’m not convinced with the standard arguments, how can I expect them to be?

But very few theologians in my circles who are my generation or younger, and very few musicians, are stepping into the gaping hole of contemporary argument. There’s a traditionalist United Methodist (?) musician on Patheos whose every post on music is greater than the total output (minus Scott Aniol’s blog) of my generation of BJU graduates. Or at least it seems that way. An undefended tradition is a tradition left to rot. It appears to be something we’re insecure about. And it becomes, I’ll say this again, a tradition we have little or no right to hold. Even when I’ve written a few posts on worship music using my own socio-linguistic angle—such as two posts on pop and two on rap—I’ve felt like I was a lone voice speaking on a topic others with the proper training ought to be speaking to; I felt like I had little authority to speak but had to risk it because of the silence of my more musically knowledgeable friends. Thankfully, my blog is so obscure that I didn’t stir up any hornets.

Even without the right to speak, I feel compelled by Rom 12:2 not to bring rock, pop, rap, country, and jazz styles into church. That’s sufficient for me for now: the argument from worldliness has always felt intuitive to me, starting at least in fifth grade in 1990, when I argued about this very issue in my Christian school with skeptical classmates. But I can see how easy it will be for my own church teens and my own kids to join the skepticism, now that contemporary musical styles are part of the assumed background of our American cultural life—as objectionable as peanut butter.

Theologians do need to form a significant portion of any discussions like those I propose; they will bring careful thinking about culture and careful exegesis of NT passages on church music. But musicians are the only ones who have the specific domain knowledge necessary to make credible arguments for pastors and people in the pew.

A Call

I worked hard over many years to popularize—to make accessible to laypeople—the most important new arguments against KJV-Onlyism. I found rhetorical strategies and concepts like “false friends” with which to package up those ideas to help them go farther. I went to considerable effort to write it all up and get it published and promoted. I hope I was able to do all this while maintaining a gentle graciousness toward my brothers who are KJV-Only (initial reactions to the book increase my hope). Plus, my book is short, and it contains jokes my wife found funny. T. David Gordon has done something similar—and his book is short, too—for the church music of upper-middle-class Presbyterians (and indeed he has much to teach my very similar worship tradition); who will do this for the church music of middle-class, conservative Baptistic “us”?

If no one stands in the gap, we will be overrun; and it may be what we deserve. Ironically, it may be the Anglicans and the Protestant mainline who keep alive the beautiful hymns and styles of the Western church music tradition. My impression is that (sweeping generalization alert) some of the KJV-Only folks out to my right are letting revivalistic music with a Southern twang and a nationalist tinge overtake what was once more robust Western church music. I think that’s unfortunate, but the best I can say is 1) that that music feels low-brow (and that nationalism doesn’t belong in church). And 2) it seems to me to be violating the principle I found in Andy Crouch’s work, namely that we are called by the Creation Mandate to cultivate the tradition we’ve inherited. I still see rock and pop and rap as lowest-common-denominator styles, illegitimate children of the Western tradition, “technologically massaged tool[s] for the delivery of pleasing or cathartic emotions” (Crouch, Culture Making, 60).

But people who know better than I do need to duke this one out. So, you music people, please write. I’d even welcome hearing from people nurtured in my tradition who, I sense, don’t quite share my feelings about what worship music ought to sound like. This debate needs to come out of private conversation and into the harsh light and cut-and-thrust of the (Christian) public square: we need books and articles and lectures and whole blogs and Facebook live chats and explainer videos from our educated and gifted musicians. My “side,” which I’m not even sure how to describe, needs to be gracious and assiduous, or (one more time for the road) we deserve to lose.

I fear it’s too late; I fear that we are losing and have lost important institutions that once conserved the Western church music tradition in its specifically English form. But we can’t waste time worrying about what is lost. The time to write is now. A one, and a two, and a NOW.

Survey for Foundations Baptist Fellowship Talk

I have been asked to address the Annual Fellowship of the Foundations Baptist Fellowship International in June, 2018, in Troy, Michigan, on this topic: “The Legitimate Concerns of the Next Generation (An Objective Analysis).”

Now, every Christian worships within some tradition or other, even if some don’t like to admit it because it threatens their claim to be the only true tradition! The tradition I was handed in God’s providence has often been one such tradition, but I don’t think it has to be: independent Baptist fundamentalism. To be clear, because that tradition has split over the KJV, I’m in the 25% (?) of that tradition that values education* and is decidedly not KJV-Only.

No one wants to take the title “fundamentalist” in public (good thing this blog is so obscure), and I’m not unaware that the title is both fraught and fought over—and despised by almost everybody. I’m all too aware that the label lumps me in with sectarians and other people I’m not proud of, and puts an artificial gap between me and other believers whose books and blogs I actually read. Please find me a label that avoids all these faults and still lets me love the people who nurtured me and carry on what’s valuable in our tradition, and I’ll happily take it, and probably already do. (There is, yes, the added problem that the label is associated with Muslim terrorism—and that’s why I helped [a little] move my “denomination” toward a new moniker, the Foundations Baptist Fellowship.)

But as I’ve explained before, I can’t deny the good I got out of this tradition. And I not infrequently hear evangelicals lamenting that they lack the very things my tradition has given me (here’s another example). I’d like to see a revitalization of my tradition, and that requires some shoptalk for those of us who have been shaped by it. Other readers are welcome to listen in, but I’d ask that only those who know what I’m talking about already and fit the intended demographic would take the survey I’m about to describe.

I’m running the informal survey below because I want to represent the “The Legitimate Concerns of the Next Generation.” I’ve been asked to do so—which speaks well of the previous generation(s). So this survey is meant for people who have been shaped by American Protestant Christian fundamentalism and still find themselves either within or not too far from that tradition. But I make no attempt to be scientific; I won’t be presenting stats (the last effort to do this ten-plus years ago was, in my judgment, a failure when it tried to do that but was still valuable for other reasons). I’m just trying to listen. I am asking that no one submit an anonymous survey—for your sake: I find it is not healthy. But I promise I will not use your name in any article or presentation without your permission. Please feel free to be honest, but I encourage you to aim for persuasion, not venting. Write with an audience of older (non-KJV-Only) FBFI members in mind. Write in a gracious and godly way calculated to influence them and appeal to them, because you may.

2018 Survey

*To say we value education more than our KJV-Only brothers is not an insult; it is an empirical observation of the credentials of their Bible college faculty vs. ours, and I’ve done the study to back it up. Contact me privately if you’re interested in seeing the stats.

Alastair Roberts on Fundamentalism, the Graham-Pence Rule, and Purity as Avoidance

I’m becoming an Alastair Roberts fanboy. I can’t wait for his Crossway book on a theology of gender—except that the guy can write 4,000 intellectually rich and biblically sound words a minute, and I actually want to get through the book so I’m hoping the editors can help him reign in the page count just a bit. The guy is ca-ra-zy prolific, like no one I’ve ever seen, including Alan Jacobs. And his British accent increases his apparent intelligence by about 10%, much as going on TV adds ten pounds.

I’m sure Roberts is fallen and finite, but I can’t help but feel he’s been raised up for such a time as this—our big, bad gender this that’s going on right now.

And inside a huge and super helpful analysis of the Graham-Pence-but-not-Tish-Harrison-Warren rule, he made a little comment that I couldn’t help noticing (HT: the proprietor of exegesisandtheology.com):

The pride many Christians have in rejecting the legalism of fundamentalism’s excessive boundaries often does not seem to be manifested in greater holiness of life, a more intense hunger for righteousness, wiser behaviour, and deeper virtue, but in more thoroughly rationalized dabbling in the dirtiness of the world. Even many Christians who are earnestly pursuing holiness can far more easily be overcome by sin in a society where the boundaries that once protected us from temptations or from acting upon them are so lowered.

Reading Christians of past ages, one is often struck by their strong sense of a need for renunciation of anything that would hinder or trip them up in their pursuit of holiness. Their strong rules around entertainment or interaction between the sexes seem so excessive to us today—surely purity is not avoidance! Yet it is hard not to wonder whether this is simply because we have such a high tolerance for sin, provided that it is perceived to occur among consensual adults and to be a tolerable cost incurred by our increased enjoyment of autonomy. Likewise, we seem to have little sense of our weakness and corruption: we all have a fifth column within our hearts.

If my own fundamentalist tradition has erred, it’s in being uncertain of or forgetful of the T in TULIP, in talking as if the fifth columnists aren’t inside the walls, as if all serious threats are external.

Let me offer, though, two Bible verses that fit Roberts’ read and don’t fit the way the cool kids talk:

Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue. (2 Pet 1:5 ESV)

In other words, the life of Christian virtue requires effort.

And now, speaking of Graham and Pence,

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil. (Proverbs 4:14 ESV)

In other words, there are plenty of times when you literally, physically just don’t go there, wherever there is, because of that fifth column inside you. You don’t make provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. You consider yourself, lest you also be tempted, even while you’re in the midst of trying to restore a sinning brother.

Now one more Bible passage—because we’ve got to hold these truths together with Col 2:

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:21–23 ESV)

It is the strength of the fundamentalist tradition to have a titanium backbone about stuff we won’t do, no matter the looks we get (and I’ve gotten looks). It is the weakness of that tradition to allow our traditional abstinences to become petty, to harden into arrogant shells that keep us from seeing the way times have changed, or the places other Christians are in their spiritual maturity, or the fact that our hearts don’t always keep up with our rules. But if, as I’m coming more and more to believe, every legitimate Christian tradition/group exists to give its gifts to Christ’s body, let’s magnify our office (humbly): you who have been influenced as I have by Protestant Christian fundamentalism, continue to quietly be willing to aim hard at holiness. Don’t let the worst and most painful kind of mockery, the kind that comes from other Christians, dissuade you from that calling to be always in pursuit of purity. Purity is more than avoidance, but not less.

A Great Pro-Protestant Argument against Sacred Tradition from Ross Douthat

Matthew Lee Anderson and Derek Rishmawy just spoke on their Mere Fidelity podcast to my favorite New York Times columnist, the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat, about his new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, a work critiquing the current pope for his push toward liberalizing the body he leads.

Rishmawy went rather around the block and back again to say it, but I felt he made an excellent point (my transcript, which I spent my whole commute on the bus getting down for you as accurately as I could, removes some verbal clutter):

One thing that struck me is it’s—you’re kind of on the two horns of the ressourcement [the return to the sources that conservatives see in Vatican II] and the aggiornamento [the “getting-with-the-times” updating that liberals like to see in Vatican II]…. The papacy itself is what keeps the thing problematic, because…on a Protestant logic…you can go back to the original sources, whether it’s the text or the fathers and say, “Well, actually, we misread them, or we’re reinterpreting… [We’ve had a] fresh encounter of the Spirit, better Greek exegesis… We actually are reading the texts in a better way, and so we’re more conforming to the Word of God and Sola Scriptura, and [its] final authority—without completely chucking tradition, but just setting it in a secondary role and we can have some sort of reform according to the Word of God based on the sources, that goes in a more updating way.”

Now the liberal mainline usually went way beyond that and actually tried to reform the text itself. And it’s not even clean Protestantism. But…you have that impulse to reform, that impulse to update. But [given] the theology of the papacy, the theology of [the] magisterial authority of the church and what it’s already said—…if the liberals in the communion win…using the power of the papacy, they have to concede the Protestant point, that the previous papacy can get things wrong… It can be reformed according to some revelation—the Word of God or some sense of the Spirit. Or [if] they lose, the papacy continues unchanging, [and] all of its statements are in an unbroken line of continuity with only internal development that only looks like it’s been changing…. It seems like the Reformation-era issues are still in play.

In other words, the liberals in the Catholic Church have a dilemma: if the pope gets to contradict Catholic tradition in the arena of sexual ethics (etc.), then they have to admit that popes can be wrong. Later in the interview Douthat says basically the same thing: Catholic liberals don’t appear to recognize that if the pope radically changes the tradition, he undercuts his own authority, because (and this is Mark Ward, not Ross Douthat:) popes create tradition and tradition creates popes. The two are part of an indissoluble system.

But Douthat’s immediate answer to Rishmawy was this:

One thing that’s interesting to me about watching this play out is that ten or fifteen years ago, if you talked to a slightly smug conservative Catholic… they might say to you something like, “Look, the great weakness of Protestants in resisting the spirit of the age is that you don’t have a papacy and the authority of tradition, you just have the Bible itself. And the Bible in the hands of modern interpreters is going to lead to modern interpretations unless you have some sort of institutional guarantor of continuity with the past. And so, you foolish Protestants, you need a pope. You need the magisterium. Otherwise, your more liberal brethren are just going to run with their liberal interpretations and no one’s going to be able to stop them.” That’s what the smug Catholic would’ve said.

But you could make now…a counterargument, which is that in effect the idea that the church has, going back to John Henry Newman but arguably the figures before that, this idea of development of doctrine, this idea that the interpreters of doctrine—the pope, ecumenical councils, the church, and so on—that there can be what look like changes of various kinds but are in fact the full truths of the Church being understood in an unfolding way. That idea can become a kind of intellectual license for creative reinterpretation, in a way that Protestants with their sola scriptura sense don’t feel license to do.

When Douthat appeals to tradition and the Bible, he says he now has liberal Catholics telling him, “Don’t be such a Protestant—don’t be a fundamentalist.”

Which just goes to show ya. Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody has an intellectual baseline, a bedrock of axioms lying directly on top of the hot magma of their loves. If you love the zeitgeist, your thinking will fall in line. If you love the Lord, you’ll listen to his words. Building institutions to promote and defend the truth is important and good. But it will never fully work. Those institutions themselves are shot through with the effects of the fall, with people who love idols.

Sometimes I have wished for a pope. A buddy pope who tells my theological opponents, “U R WRONG!” with cool-looking encyclicals on parchment. A tough pope who keeps me in line, too, when I need it. A biblical pope who is just enforcing Christ’s words. And as Douthat points out in the interview, Catholic tradition has long held a line on divorce that (many? most?) Protestants have let go. But if Catholic tradition isn’t sufficient to keep Catholics from entertaining the idea that maybe men can marry men, then what is it good for? What good is it to have a pope? Sola scriptura has, perhaps, given us mainline Protestantism (I’d rather say people have twisted it into mainline views). But surely Catholic tradition has given us liberal Catholicism—and a bunch of other accretions. I’ll stick with my sola scriptura, norma normans non normata, ad fontes, ressourcesment. Christ will build his church. I don’t need a mediator or a magisterium besides those prescribed in Scripture.

John Calvin and Lamin Sanneh on Giving the Bible to the People

My book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, amounts to an argument for vernacular Bible translation—applied to one specific set of objections in one specific historical circumstance.

I find myself repeating myself as I promote the book on podcasts and radio shows, and I also find other writers who agree that vernacular translation is of the utmost importance. Here are two quick arguments/quotes/what-have-yous on vernacular translation. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea worth defending.

The first is brilliant, and so simple I’ve missed it all these years. It comes from Lamin Sanneh, by way of one of the very best “opponents” to my book that I’ve run into, a pastor who strongly prefers the KJV but listened to my argument and engaged it intelligently and courteously. What a gift. Sanneh (HT: aforesaid pastor) made the simple point (and I can’t seem to track this down precisely in the video; working on that) that the Jewish “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites” at Pentecost most likely spoke the lingua franca of the region, namely Greek. But the miraculous work of the Spirit through the disciples enabled them to hear God in their respective heart languages.

“How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:8–12 ESV)

I’ll tell you what it means: God cares to bless all families of the earth through Abraham’s seed. And he meets them where they are, linguistically speaking. He doesn’t make them learn an older version of their languages; he doesn’t make them cock their heads and say, That’s a rather funny version of Cappadocian.

The second comes from Calvin in his comments on Psalm 25:

It is no wonder that there is here made a distinction between those who truly serve God, and to whom he makes known his secret, and the wicked or hypocrites. But when we see David in this confidence coming boldly to the school of God, and leading others along with him, let us know, as he clearly shows, that it is a wicked and hateful invention to attempt to deprive the common people of the Holy Scriptures, under the pretence of their being a hidden mystery; as if all who fear him from the heart, whatever their state or condition in other respects may be, were not expressly called to the knowledge of God’s covenant.