Tom Pittman's WebLog

2017 July 5 -- God of Yin & Yang

The acronym "CCM" stands for "Contemporary Christian Music" (the order is significant). The important thing about contemporary artistry is that they no longer care about evoking emotions in people, it's all about control, basically jerking you around. The "Christian" part is pretty nominal, maybe they might mention God or Jesus, more often only in a 2nd-person pronoun "you" which is overwhelmed by a majority of first-person pronouns "I"/"me". Most of the songs they sing in church celebrate Self. The "Music" part is even more remote, no melody nor harmony, just a driving beat.

OK, maybe they are more about Jesus than Buddha or Mohammed, so that makes them "Christian". Jesus said there's only two sides to the fence: either you're in or you're out. So when they tell us to stand for the songs, I stand. There's no music to read, so I watch the bass player to see if I can read his fingers and hum that. I don't see any value trying to learn songs that "worship me." But if they ever repeat the "Me above all" song, I think I will sit down. It starts out OK, (presumably Jesus, but not by name) is "Above all powers / Above all kings," which is Scriptural enough, but at the end the song writer has him defer to "Me above all." It's totally wrong. Jesus Christ is above all, not me. I don't even have a place at his table unless I deny myself. But that was a month or two ago.

This week it was another song that seemed to start out Biblically enough, a reference to Job 1:21, "The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the Name of the LORD." But there was something wrong, something that bothered me more than all the previous times I heard it. Throughout the whole song, the giving and the taking away are carefully and equally balanced, like Yin and Yang, like the Light side and the Dark side of the Force. The God of this song is dualistic, equally dispensing good and evil. The God of the Bible is Good and never evil. Bad Things Happen, but God didn't do it. In the Job story, Satan did it. God is still sovereign and Satan doesn't blow his own nose without God's permission, but it's permission, not command. Job spoke his praise line in the middle of catastrophe only. When things were good, he offered sacrifices. The outcome is different for the different situations, because the cause is different.

I get the impression these song writers don't read their Bibles very carefully, sometimes not at all. I would hope for better in a "conservative" denomination, but I guess that's too much to ask for.

Postscript, a year later, the pastor of this church (I don't remember the context) told me that he used to rewrite the words of songs to correct the theology -- the hymnbook in the pews (which they do not use) does that to a number of classic hymns, including "Come Thou Fount" which we sang yesterday to the original words (including "Ebenezer" which is Hebrew for "rock of help" in 1Sam.7:12, but nobody knows that any more, the verse also happens to be in my reading this week), but  reworked into a more rock-like syncopated 4/4 rhythm -- but the pastor said now he no longer bothers to rewrite. I suspect he has learned that the Feelers who come to church don't much care what the words mean, but only whether they are affirming or disaffirming.
 

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2018 May 22 -- Pagan Theology in Church?

I've been puzzling over this song for several days now. The chorus is Biblical: God is Good. That was intentional: the songwriter cites Psalm 136:1 and Psalm 100:5 as the Scriptural basis for his lyrics. Unfortunately, his song says a lot more than merely that God is good. When I came home from church with the words bouncing around in my head, I thought he was urging his singers to make promises they can't -- nay, don't even much want to -- keep, which is totally contrary to much of what my Bible tells me, but when I Googled the lyrics, they were different from what I remembered. Not great, but different. I don't know if our praise team changed the words, or if I remembered wrong (probably the latter).

But I didn't know what to make of the verses. "Let the King of my heart be The mountain when I run, The fountain I drink from;... The wind inside my sails,... The fire inside my veins." Maybe it's just poetic nonsense, the sort of feel-good "God loves me" that most American church members consider to be the essence of their faith but is rather harder to find in the Bible.

Or maybe the singer wants "the King of [his] heart" (that is, his god) to be parts of the creation instead of the Creator. Notice that he has cited exactly the four elements of pagan Reality: Earth (mountain), Water (fountain, waves), Air (wind), and Fire. McMillan and his followers can worship whomever they please -- Jesus is never mentioned in this song, and God only once, in the last line. But like Joshua, "Me and my house, we will serve the LORD," I want to praise and worship the Creator, not the creation [Rom.1:25].

But I don't know if that's what he meant or not, it's too obscure. What ever happened to "singing psalms and hymns and Spiritual songs"?
 
 

2021 January 11 -- Church and Music

This is a "Community Church" so they try to be a place for everybody. They don't do liturgy, but they do have seasonal Advent candles, which some family comes up each week to light the next one. Everybody else in the world stops celebrating Christmas on Christmas day, but liturgical churches (sometimes only implicitly) celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, which liturgical season ends with the beginning of Epiphany, January 6, and this church continued with their one token Christmas song on the third day of Christmas (December 27). I guess they dropped the Tenth Day. Whatever.

The sermon topics during Advent focussed on the four songs in Luke associated with the birth of Jesus, and the four pastors in charge of the four campuses were each assigned one song and took turns rotating around the four campuses preaching their particular song. I didn't catch his name, but one of the guys drew the short straw, and he wasn't very excited about his assigned song. He as much as said so, and you could tell, because he picked one half verse out of the middle of the song, and preached a topical sermon on salvation, the word was in that half verse, and he basically ignored the rest of the song.

This was several weeks ago and I hope I'm not confusing him with another of the young guys -- maybe the Senior pastor hires young guys to do the satellite campuses, because they are less likely to challenge his authority (pretty much all pastors are into authority and control, the other personality types don't want the job) -- he said his first job was as Music Minister, and he really liked the structure of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), which starts out gentle (I don't recall his exact words) with the verses, then gets stronger with the chorus, but the climax is the bridge. I always thought of a "bridge" in its etymological sense of being a way to get over a chasm separating here and there, a means to an end, not the end itself. And while the CCM bridge in most of the songs I can think of hearing in church booms louder than the rest, it's all empty repetition, contentless words that Jesus told us [Matt.6:7] to avoid. Even in CCM, the meat is in the verses.

This has been nagging me for a week now, because (I guess he's) an associate pastor who came up for closing remarks and/or a benediction at the end commented on the importance of the repeated line in the bridge of that final song, that "God is Good" -- which is true, perhaps the only True thing in the whole song, which mostly invites the four pagan elements (earth, fire, air and water, plus darkness and light = Yin and Yang, a different religious tradition, but still anti-Christian) to become "the King of my heart", thus celebrating the created rather than the Creator. I never heard any mention of Jesus or God in the whole song. Lyrics for all these songs are online, and I did find two "God"s buried out there in the repetitive part I tune out, but still no Jesus. The only way you can know this is a "Christian" song is that the Deity ("King of my heart") is masculine, whereas neo-paganism makes their deity female in conscious opposition to the true God. Oh, also, one of the eight elements invited to be "King of my heart" is a "ransom" which is a Christian concept not found in other religions. But I saw that in the downloaded lyrics, and never heard it go by in the (darkened) sanctuary. The meat is still in the verses, but it needs more than a heavy beat to hide its putrefaction.

I don't go to church -- certainly not this one -- for the music. There's another church in town that did beautiful music the week I visited (see "Choosing a Church" four years ago) but I had other and better reasons for not going there. With one or two exceptions (neither of whom lasted as long as I did at their church), every pastor I ever knew or knew of is a control freak. I thought the pastor at the church I picked four years ago was an exception, but I was wrong. I do not yet know for sure about this pastor, but I know how to deal with that personality type -- mostly stay off their radar, which is easier in a large church -- so I hope to be more careful this time around. Except I'm more noticeable than most: the senior pastor saw me walking to church and came over to say something, then he saw "the little Red Book" (my Greek New Testament, in which I was reading the text for his upcoming sermon), and repeated the fear that good pastors have of lay people reading Greek & Hebrew. It's that fear that makes them good -- and also (misplaced) causes them to drive me out.

Music here is a wasteland: CCM is tuneless, minimal harmony -- one of the praise team singers tries to sing harmony, but only manages to find notes to sing about half the time in less than a quarter of their song selections -- no rhyme, no worthwhile message, only a driving beat. I think I was still in college and had a music prof say that the joke in England was that "Opera is sung in Italian so that people will not realize that what is too silly to be said is sung." I'm convinced that CCM drowns everything in a rock beat for the same reason. It would appear (from videos and movies of riot scenes) that some people like to chant mindless repetitious phrases instead of thinking about the issues, but I'm not one of them. Perhaps churches (and the CCM industry in particular) sees that as a need they can and should fill.

This church is pretty proud of their small groups, but I'm still rather gun-shy: One guess at why I got the boot in the previous church involved my participation in their small (men's) group. But it's only a guess. Fortunately, I have Covid to blame for not joining -- last year and continuing this month, dunno about when the pandemic is over.
 
 

2021 January 25 -- Church and Music, Part 2

I guess it was a couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I didn't choose this church for its music. Four years ago, when I was new in town and church-shopping, several of the churches that didn't make it to my short list, it was because I didn't like the music. Perhaps this was one of them, perhaps not, but I don't remember now. The main campus, which is walking distance from my home, has two music leaders who trade off on no obvious schedule. It's curious, they both have the same first name, except hers is the feminine form. Like all women everywhere, her choice of songs is more emotional than his, but not by as much as if she were being compared to the general public because pretty much all American (evangelical) churches are run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, MBTI Feelers, in which women dominate. Pastors and other church leaders (even, perhaps especially, the men) are exclusively Feeler-Judgers. Every time I think I have found an exception, I am proved wrong, sometimes catastrophically.

Anyway, so yesterday one of her songs struck me as somewhat more Jesus-centered than most, still less than half of the nouns + pronouns (10% Jesus vs 13% 1st-person by actual count), but one of the verses in this unstructured song -- all modern artists (including musicians) see their sacred duty to jerk the audience around, so now that somebody has defined a structure for CCM, nobody wants to do it that way any more -- the verse is sung in a punctuated jerky style, full stop between syllables, like this:

I. will. build. my. life. up.on. Your. love.
It. is. a. firm. foun.da.tion...


This form of punctuation calls special attention to the verse, so I thought about it a lot over the rest of the day. Besides making promises you cannot keep (like the general repetitiveness, Jesus said "Don't do that," but who pays any attention to what Jesus said any more?), this verse makes the audacious claim that the alleged love of Jesus is "a firm foundation" on which to build one's life. How do we know that? The song writer(s) don't say. They cannot. The only way to know something religious like this is if God Himself told us (like in the Bible), and God never said any such thing.

I have an electronic copy of the NIV Bible, and I found in it 76 verses that mention the word "foundation" but only 13 of them say what it is made of. The rest of the verses tell what the foundation is resting on, or what was built on it, or how sturdy it is, but mostly foundations get mentioned incidentally in connection with destruction, removing whatever was built on them. Three of the 13 say that the foundation of Solomon's temple was made of high-quality stone. Two verses (Isaiah and Revelation) describe foundations of jewels in the future. Two verses in Psalms say that the foundation of God's throne are Righteousness and Justice; two in Isaiah seem to be about a foundation for our life and times, one of them could be Righteousness and Justice (or else those are only associated with the foundation, and its composition is unspecified), the other is salvation and wisdom and knowledge.

The five verses in the New Testament describing what a foundation is [made of] are all in epistles. In Hebrews the foundation is repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God. Paul's first letter to Timothy "the church of the living God [is] the pillar and foundation of the truth." A few chapters later he invites the rich people to build a foundation for their future out of good deeds and generosity. In his letter to the Ephesians, the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone," which is somewhat like the verse in his first letter to Corinth: "no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ." Nowhere in the whole Bible is any foundation linked to love, and certainly not the love of Jesus, which concept is far more scarce in the Bible than CCM songwriters -- and also church song leaders like this one and her male alternate -- would like to believe.

The sermon yesterday is one of a series on the church's "Core Values" where the focus was on relevance (to the surrounding culture) without compromise (of essential Christian doctrine). Different people draw the line differently. The senior pastor here (perhaps with the agreement of his staff, but I didn't hear him say) seems to think that playing music the way the local culture wants it is more about relevance than compromise, so he instructed his sound guy to increase the amplitude to the point of physical pain. The woman at the other end of the row I was in left the auditorium. I will be carrying a pair of noise-cancelling earphones so long as this new policy persists. Somebody else told me today that they always sit in the far rear to minimize the harmful effects of the sound.

I gave some thought to the relevance thing too, and was reminded of the young romantic novelist-sometime-violinist who once told me with a straight face that the baroque composers did not yet know how to express emotion in their music. It is the nature of music that it expresses emotion; her problem was that she only understood and acknowledged one emotion, romance (love). Other kinds of music (for example Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring") expresses joy. The "Dies Irae" in Mozart's Requiem is a fabulous expression of fear in the face of God's Wrath. Rock music -- especially heavy metal -- expresses anger and rejection. That may be appropriate in a Christian context when people are rejecting their past sins and angry at the Enemy for drawing them into it, but some of us want to move past that into the Joy of the Lord. There are Christian love songs, but they are not sung here in this church. A one-dimensional monochromatic music service leaves people starving for nourishment. The pastor preached the previous week on the riots and anger in Washington, little realizing that the very same culture he is trying to emulate in his church, that's the only music people listen to all day long for the past 60-plus years. No wonder they are angry all the time! And he wants that in his church??

Maybe suppressing the sound is a good idea, a multi-dimensional plan for (my) healthy living. I'm not saying the pastor is "wrong" about his loud music policy, only that it does not appear to me to be helpful to anybody *I* know. He knows different people than I do, and he is responsible for bringing the Gospel to everybody -- especially the ones he knows that I do not. The church policy on disagreement is "...freedom in non-essentials." Non-essential works for me: good music is nice, but not what I go to church for.
 
 
 

2015 September 15 -- I Worship Me

I woke up this morning with a song of praise to God running through my head, "Crown Him Lord of All." It used to happen more often, but I need to train my subconscious by singing good songs in church, and this church mostly doesn't. Their "music" is done by a rock band led by a guy too young to understand the difference between singing about "me" and singing about God. The church is pretty intentional about most of their ministry, but music didn't make it to the top of their list. The guy tries hard, and I have been there long enough now that he is beginning to repeat things.

I first noticed the problem three churches ago, when I sang in the choir. A pretty robust way to know what a text or song is about is to count the words of a particular class. Church songs are filled with pronouns, "you" and "your" addressed to God, and "I", "me" and "my" (and much less often "we", "us" and "our") concerning me, myself and I. I started counting the pronouns. The most popular contemporary Christian music (CCM) songs -- the ones that play on the radio stations I don't listen to, and therefore the people in the congregation know, so that's what the song leaders play for them to sing in church -- generally have twice as many first-person pronouns as second person. People like to sing about themselves.

It's backwards. Jesus said that if you want to be on his team, you need to start with self-denial. The Biblical religion is all about God, not me. There are some CCM songs about God, just not many. This last Sunday the guy led off with one, and then his third or fourth song was one I actually knew, "How Great Thou Art." Count the pronouns. Sometimes that gives a wrong emphasis (as in this case), but it's a good start. Maybe it has a lot of "you" pronouns, but the song is about what "you" (God) are doing for me. It's not really about God the giver so much as it is what *I* get out of it, me the beneficiary, because it's all about me.

Me, I druther sing about God. So I don't feel bad that I don't know any of the songs they play at church -- except the one each week (average) from the classic hymns. Some of the hymns are self-centric too: a couple weeks ago they did "Come Thou Fount" which invites God to "tune my heart". Another verse, the traditional words (they changed the obscure words here, but kept the personal focus) say "Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I've come, and I hope..." Count the pronouns: only one 2nd-person pronoun and four first-person. It's about me, what *I* am doing to praise God. Yes, there's some God in there, but mostly me, myself and I. sigh

One song this guy particularlarly likes repeats its main line -- in so-called "7/11" songs 7 words get repeated 11 times, a slight exaggeration, but not by much in this church -- "It is for freedom that I am set free" with special musical emphasis on "freedom" and "I am". The theology is wrong. We are not "set free" for the purpose of American-style anarchic "freedom" but rather so that we can be servants of the Most High God, as Paul clearly points out in Rom.6:16-18 and again in 1Cor.7:22, and expresses everywhere by calling himself a "slave of the Lord Jesus Christ."
 

2014 August 14 -- Music & Emotions

I get what little current news I see from dead-tree media, which mostly have abandonned reporting news in favor of offering opinions. I have plenty of opinions of my own, I don't need to read other peoples' blunders. As a result, I don't hurry very hard to read the non-news portions of this magazine I get, and here it is a whole month after its pull date that I see a feature article on some orchestra conductor (Manfred Honeck) with heart. I'm all in favor of putting your heart into whatever you do, so I don't begrudge his exuberance, but it reminded me of a remark I heard from a musician friend a couple months ago and have been mulling over ever since.

I don't remember her exact words, but it was something to the effect that Bach composed his music before people learned how to make music express emotion. I suspect Maestro Honeck would disagree. The article quotes him as referring to how "Mozart and Bach have a positive influence on the healing process..." in a paragraph that begins "Through music you can touch the soul... people sometimes cry if they hear beautiful music." If that isn't about emotions, I don't know what is.

It seems to me that it is the nature of music is to convey emotions. Different music conveys different emotions. Perhaps my friend has a very narrow notion of what constitutes "emotion" and supposes that only romance qualifies. Hate (rock music) and joy (baroque) and sadness (blues) are also valid emotions. The Mozart Requiem does an awesome job of communicating fear.

We have a 5000+year recorded history of people making music. Even if you restrict emotions to romance, I am not so selfish and narrow-minded -- I think the usual term for it is arrogant -- as to believe that only in the last 2% of that time did they figure out how to do emotions.
 

2004 June 30 -- Plastic Music

The church I currently attend has an "orchestra": one violin, one very good flute, a clarinet, and I think an electric bass guitar. Sometimes some brass, but not very often. For a church that size, I think it's wonderful. The pianist is quite skillful, and they choose pretty good hymns. I don't, but if I were to choose a church on its music, this would be high on the list.

But when they present vocal music, they don't use their own qualified musicians, they play a CD sound track. I call it "plastic music." This leads me to ask, What's the point?

Who are they singing for, God? Or for the entertainment of the congregation? As entertainers, they have a long way to go to compete with the vocal track on that same CD. But we don't go to church to be entertained, do we? What's the point?

I read the Psalms, one per day. With a few adjustments for 31-day months, this fills out exactly five months. Today was the end of the cycle, Psalm 150 on June 30. It's a wonderful psalm of praise to God. Three churches ago they had a Sunday School song that set this to very colorful music, with instrumental runs and trills to accentuate the various instruments in the psalm. The point of music in the church is to praise God. The singers praise God. The instrumentalists praise God. We get to hear them praise God, but they are doing it for God more than for us, right?

But the plastic music, is that for God? God already heard that particular recording -- in the recording studio. It cannot be for our entertainment, because that's not what church is about, is it? Why can't the singers use local talent (when it is available, as it is in this church) to accompany their praise? Then two people, not just the soloist, get to praise God.

We live in a plastic, throw-away society. Plastic is chintzy, cheap. What we do for God should be better than that.
 
 

Links

2020 October 5 -- Making Promises We Can't Keep
2018 May 22 -- Pagan Theology in Church? (original post)
2021 January 11 -- Church and Music (original post)
2021 January 25 -- Church and Music, Part 2 (original post)
2015 September 15 -- I Worship Me (original post)
2014 August 14 -- Music & Emotions (original post)
2004 June 30 -- Plastic Music (original post)
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