Forgive me while I get something off my chest.
I awoke way too early the day before yesterday. It may have been because my right eye was burning from having unwittingly rubbed it with with fingers that had previous been kneading Lakota Extra Strong into my wife’s injured shoulder. But my mind was racing with thoughts about my class on Psalms the night before, during which I re-visited Paul’s words:
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (COL 3.15-17)
We actually only read verse 16, as the focus of the conversation was on Paul’s mention of singing psalms–something that is done very rarely these days in either homes or churches. This observation morphed into a discussion of some of the music we now consider the music of the Church.
I have often heard it said that the Church should redeem the artistic media of the world and offer them to Jesus in worship. I wonder about this statement on two counts: the object of the verb, “redeem,” and the verb itself.
First, the object. Let’s look at the logic of redeeming artistic media. We would all agree that when a sinner is pulled from the depths of depravity, it should be cause for great rejoicing in the Body of Christ. He or she is a trophy of God’s “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace” (Julia H. Johnston, 1911.) And how do we know that? We know it theologically–the Bible explains to us that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 COR 5.21) And we know it practically, because of one thing: change. The indwelling Holy Spirit produces change in the behaviour and attitudes of the new believer as he or she becomes less and less conformed to the world through the transforming of the mind. (ROM 12.2)
But when we “redeem” an artistic medium–namely, the music–the interesting thing is that there is no change at all. In fact, that’s the whole point–the desire is to change the purpose for the medium, but not the medium itself. A better verb than “redeem” would be, “redirect.”
You might be saying, “It’s not really about the music–it’s about the lyrics.” I don’t buy it. People would not pay large sums to fill an arena and listen to someone read the words. If the same words were sung to a tune by Bach or Martin Luther or Thomas Campbell, people wouldn’t sing them, and they wouldn’t spend their entertainment dollars to hear someone else sing them. Not today.
I’ve seen this illustrated in interesting ways. Toddlers who are too young to understand any lyrics will gyrate to pop tunes almost automatically. They can mimic with eery precision the movements of the entertainers they see on the impossible-to-ignore plasma TV’s, only slightly smaller than Prince Edward Island, that dominates their parents’ living rooms. I have seen these same toddlers move exactly the same way when they hear “worship music.” The response is instantaneous–it’s like someone has flipped a switch somewhere under their sleepers. They’re not being blessed by the text.
I saw the same phenomenon in Mexico a number of years ago. In a church event for youth designed to “get lost kids in,” teenagers entered a room where refreshments were offered and they sat on the floor to chat before the activities began. In the background, some “worship music” was playing on the sound system. It was playing too quietly to understand the lyrics–but the effect of the music was immediate. Some of the visitors–young people who had never been in a church in their lives–began to writhe and gyrate their upper bodies just as they would have at the club down the street. And not in a manner acceptable for your church’s worship team. The only things missing were the mirror ball, the coloured lights, and lots of sweaty skin. These teens had no idea that what they were hearing was the music of the Church.
Where do we draw the line? Maybe we should have limerick services, in which we transform bawdy pub rhymes into clever adaptations of the Minor Prophets. Perhaps we should redeem pole dancing. Pretty girls could perform to the strains of one of our contemporary songs that has an appropriate rhythm. Or erotic photography. We could ask the Gideons to print New Testaments with pictures of entwined nudes on the covers. That would bring lots of men into the fold–and probably quite a few women. After all, if God redeems the most depraved sinners, why shouldn’t we redeem the most depraved artistic forms?
I hope you grasp the satire. If these modest proposals offend you, I’ve made my point. The thought of making worship salacious should be repugnant to us. Yet we will “redeem” the same musical forms that incited rebellion against authority and precipitated the sexual revolution–by design–and offer them to God as worship! We will enthusiastically embrace a medium that grew up in the mean streets of urban America in a context of rage and despair; one that very often encourages violence, incest, rape, and promiscuity, with blatant disregard for authority and for the dignity and sanctity of human life. Our performers will mimic the motions, style, intonations, and productions of some of the most godless and shallow people our culture has produced. I have to wonder why.
How can we be sure God accepts these offerings? Where did we get the idea that redeeming artistic media is something we should seek to do in the first place? The prophet Malachi railed against Israel because they were offering God cast-offs He refused to accept:
“But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts….But you say, “What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the LORD of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the LORD.” (MAL 1.7b-9, 13)
Finding God’s standards unacceptable–snorting at them–the people established their own criteria for what they offered to God. Not only the nature of their offerings, but also the attitudes with which they offered them are evident in this passage. We must be careful that we do not treat God’s wishes with disdain, and that what we offer Him is what He actually wants.
Now the verb. I looked up “redeem” on the nifty little dictionary on my Mac (admittedly, not the O.E.D.), and here is what I found:
The primary definition is, “‘compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something)’: a disappointing debate redeemed only by an outstanding speech | (as adj. redeeming) : the splendid views are the one redeeming feature of the center.”
Edging closer to the biblical concept, the dictionary later says, “‘(of a person) atone or make amends for (error or evil)’: the thief on the cross who by a single act redeemed a life of evil. Save (someone) from sin, error, or evil: he was a sinner, redeemed by the grace of God.'”
Only the secondary definition communicates what God means when He uses the word in the Scriptures: “‘gain or regain possession of (something) in exchange for payment’: his best suit had been redeemed from the pawnbrokers...’pay the necessary money to clear (a debt)’: owners were unable to redeem their mortgages...(archaic) buy the freedom of.'”
If we speak of redeeming an artistic medium using the primary definition, my question is, “In what way have we compensated for the ‘faults or bad aspects’ of the medium, when we have not changed it at all?” The fact that we choose to use the medium, unchanged, suggests that we find no fault with it. I submit that attaching religious sentiments–or even biblical quotations–to a death metal song does not change the medium. We do not redeem the form, we simply use it to try to communicate something else.
We really get into trouble if we use the verb, “redeem,” in the biblical sense. First of all, God redeems–we don’t. We are the redeemees, not the redeemers.
Second, redemption in the biblical sense implies previous ownership. When God redeemed us, He bought back something that was already His. Hosea’s experience with his promiscuous wife is meant to illustrate this principle, and does so perfectly. When did the Church own the media it says it is redeeming? We say on Thursday that the artists who grace the pages of People and Rolling Stone need to hear the gospel, repent, and trust Christ; on Sunday we offer their music to God in worship. Am I missing something here?
Third, redemption requires a price. In the salvific sense, that price was the blood of Christ–the most precious commodity in the history of the universe. (I have been disappointed that some otherwise excellent contemporary songs fail to emphasize–or even mention–the real price of our salvation.) It seems our concept of redemption is that there is no purchase necessary. Might it be that we use popular entertainment media in our churches so we can avoid paying the price of being distinct? And what is that price? Smaller congregations, perhaps. And smaller offerings, which are already small enough. Lack of appeal to the “unchurched.” A perception of cultural irrelevance.
God’s people are not called to fit in, but to stand out. Truth will always change culture, and culture will never change truth. Have we lost sight of this reality?
Ezekiel, in describing temple worship during the coming reign of Christ, writes of the Levitical order, “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (EZE 44.23)
Maybe we need to start learning that now.