HAROLD M. BEST
Wheaton College Conservatory of Music
I want to begin with some truisms. God has never waited to do His work until His people come up with exactly the right methods, the best sermons, the most magnificent sanctuaries, the greatest music and art, and complete purity of heart. Otherwise, He would wait forever. If He chooses, He will speak truth through the mouth of a jackass and then turn right around and inspire a true-blue prophet to speak with sublimest poetry and spiritual force. God simply works even while He is accused of inconsistency, preferentialism, snootiness, or bad taste. The Gospel can be preached in envy; church growth (I use this term in its millenia-old sense) can happen in the midst of covetousness or corporate ego; an evangelist's moral shenanigans cannot cancel out the Gospel he preaches. Reformers never completely reform and those seemingly entombed in dead practices can, in the blink of an eyelash, be raised up into newness without anybody being able to say why. God can work, if He wishes, in magnificent disinterestedness; He is always the Victor, always in the nick of time. He neither wears a wristwatch nor keeps a desk calendar. If His methods were transposed into the corporate world, the Total Quality Management/Management By Objectives people would climb the walls in frustration, for even in the eternities, the martyred are, right now, asking this great Administrator why He has not yet avenged those who have drawn their blood.
While we err, He saves; while we triumph, He transcends, and in those transcendent times when we are carried along by the Spirit Himself, He graciously bathes us and His work with a glory that has precious little to do with what we may have done to prompt it. That God rises above everything and, in His magnificence, stoops to take the motley sum of our evangelism: lisping, stumbling, brash, quiet, humble, self-centered, loud, hyped, quite, elegant, prophetic, and loving; glossed over with affluence and prettiness; locked up in dead ritual or false ecstasy; that He so willingly works through such frail and failing earthen vessels; that He acts in so many ways and through so many channels is an astonishing grace and an equal mystery. That He works is no excuse for, no validation of, anything that we do. As someone has said--I wish I knew who it was--even our tears of repentance need washing in the blood of the Lamb. In all things He validates Himself, lest any of us should boast.
There is another way of saying this. Perhaps God is not nearly as much at work as we think, and maybe all of our ecclesiastical hustle and bustle in all of its variety are little more than proxies for the real work of God. Maybe we have come to depend so much on our evidences of what God is really supposed to be doing that we no longer look for His evidences. We just think He is working because the sweep of our works and their temporal effects make it appear that He is.
Could it be that in His own patient and uncompromising way, He wants to show us how inconsequential our efforts are by allowing them to mount up all by themselves into a new ecclesiastical Babel? Are our programs, debates and divisions over worship and musical styles--diversity here, alternative there, and convergence elsewhere--are these growing evidence that He might be scattering and dispersing us once again, to show us how powerfully absent He has become, how little of Himself He is really revealing, and how much more He really would show, if we would just get out of the way and regroup in the stability of common ground?
I am, by training, a musician and by vocation an administrative member of Christian higher education. While I remain passionate about the highest standards in the arts, I pray that I am being saved from worshipping beauty and enthroning quality. I live in, and love, musical diversity as never before in my life. I also love theology, and while less schooled here than in musical practice, I remain a hungry amateur, attempting always to think biblically. I must confess that my amateurism has taken hold of my professionalism, for it is the biblical and theological sides of all issues that, more than ever, remain primary. I fully believe that musical and artistic action must be symptoms of what is biblical and not the reverse.
In the next few moments, I should like to go over some things of concern to me. I may speak strongly at times, for to me, part of common ground is common concern. Put another way, common ground can grow wheat or tares. I want to do my best to find the tares and help get rid of them. I pray that, in doing this, I will show kindness and love, first to you and then to myself, for I am all too often part of the tares instead of the wheat. I am reminded of the classic story about G. K. Chesterton who, along with a number of writers, was asked by the London Times for an essay on the topic "What is Wrong With the World?" He wrote back:
Dear Sirs:I am also reminded of the words of that poet of management theory, Peter Drucker, when he mentioned three things that planning is not. Here they are in brief:
G. K. Chesterton.
1. Planning is not masterminding the future. We cannot predict or forecast. Thus planning is important precisely because we cannot forecast.
2. Planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the futurity of present decisions.
3. Planning is not an attempt to eliminate risk. It is essential that the risks taken be the right risks.
We know all too well how Chesterton's words apply, but how do Drucker's? In this way, I believe: So many of our present efforts in church work, church growth, seeker sensitivity and user friendliness seem to deal with present cultural contexts as if they were complete and were to become, to cause, or be the same as, the future. Instead of dealing with the futurity of our work; instead of creating a panoramic and prophetic context which will comprehend any number of futures, we seem to be obsessed with a kind of present-ness having more to do with how we get along now instead of how a truly biblical Now will direct us into a truly biblical future.
Despite our efforts to pour Truth into the receptacles of a very disturbed and broken culture; despite our evangelistic efforts to effect the transformation of the very culture that we at once condemn and seek to accommodate, we may be speaking little more than an ecclesiastical dialect of a pagan culture, giving it little more than a Christian accent, hoping that this dialect, this accent, this superficially applied concept of "not letting the Devil have all the good tunes," this pouring of Truth wine into cracked cultural wineskins, will emulate the One who, in our flip way of saying it, "always spoke in the language of the people." But the question remains: If the receptacles of a deeply troubled culture are as inadequate and flawed as we say, what right do we have to pour Truth in to them? Why do we criticise culture so harshly from the pulpit and then turn right around and use its mechanisms and mindsets with which to build our growth models? What do we do when the Truth leaks out or spills over?--and leak and spill it will. Do we then limit the amount of Truth these receptacles can hold or do we do the better thning and seek out new wineskins as fervently as we seek the Truth to pour into them?
Pressing this culture-wineskin metaphor further, it goes without saying that the Gospel cannot afford to be discultural, uncultural, or anticultural. The Gospel will always need a wineskin, given these two things: First, wine and wineskins are two completely different things. Second, no wineskin should ever determine the kind of wine poured into it. Wine does not equal wineskins any more than Truth equals culture. If cultures, like wineskins, lose their resiliency, break down, and collapse, it does not take an Einstein to say that culture needs transforming; that is, new wineskins are needed. If the Gospel takes people who are cracked and broken and makes them into new creatures, it only follows that these new creatures should make new things and say new things in new ways. But do they? Do we?
If we believe that transformed people are meant to make new things in new ways and say new things in new ways, how can we hold to this belief while simultaneously making these new things act, feel, and sound like old and broken things? We don't have to use unintelligible cultural languages in order to spread the Gospel, but we do have to transform the old, cracked, broken and mis-directive languages into fresh, renewed, and transforming ones, that will communicate differently and more powerfully--and, yes, more controversially--than the broken ones. So why is it that we feel so compelled to scamper this way and that, trying to make the Gospel so user-friendly by pouring it into worn out and broken-down cultural wineskins to which worn out and broken down people are so fundamentally addicted? Why do we do this when we could pour it into new wineskins in order to break the addiction? What's so scary, after all, about the Body of Christ being radically different and showing its difference from start to finish? Life can never be all consonance. Consonance all by itself is New Age psycho-babble. Dissonance is what makes consonance come alive, sit up, and take notice. If saving Truth is to be true to itself, its intelligibility cannot be conveyed without the dissonance that Truth alone produces. Since Truth cannot be conveyed disculturally, since Truth is not Truth without dissonance, and since Truth by its very nature cannot help but transform the very culture that carries it, it is impossible to be true to the Truth while trying to convey it in the falsifying consonance of user friendliness and consumer-driven seeker sensitivity.
The real question then, is Pilate's question: "What is Truth?" The answer to this informs the next question, "What is redemption?", which in turn informs the question, "What is culture?" Consequently, if my ship is to go down, I'd rather it go down over the question of how Truth informs and transforms culture instead of how culture defines Truths and smooths it over. And if, as was said in the first session, witness is overheard worship, if this Gospel is believed to transform culture and if its ambassadors are truly transformed, neither it nor they can wait until after salvation for the transformation to begin or to be culturally shown. This simply shifts the burden from the evangelist to the infant Christian. "Go out there and transform culture," we say to these babes, "for that's what the Gospel says you should do. Meantime, we'll communicate the Gospel to you and to others in your old ways." So I say that the transforming Gospel must be communicated with the transformed vocabularies of a transformed culture. Contrary to our silly, consumerist fears about losing the unconverted audience, the unconverted will have to face the dissonance in exactly the same way that they faced it in Christ's day, for Whom both new wine and new wineskins were mandatory. It should make perfect sense to the unconverted that something as radical as the Gospel, unequivocally preached and culturally different, will make strange, even unfriendly claims on them. They will understand it because they, too, are live radically, but upside down; they, too, are at worship, consumed with their gods and outspoken about their own gospel. In a frighteningly frank way, they know how to evangelize. Jesus knew this, and in His brand of user friendliness, He left a trail of those who were so offended that, as hard as it is for me to say this and as hard as it must have been on Jesus, they followed Him no more. And finally, the Wine of grace, judgment, and mercy which He poured into His fresh wineskins was so paradoxically dislodging in their transcendent welcome, that it led to Jesus' death. Not very good market research, is it?
The foregoing brings me to a few puzzles. The first has to do with what has become known as seeker sensitivity. This concept is in so many ways right, for are we not to be sensitive to those who seek the Savior even if they do not realize that they are seeking Him? We need to remember that all churches of all kinds, past and present, have been seeker sensitive. The concept is not new at all, even though some leaders act as if it were never thought of before, or try to give the impression that churches who do not adopt the current protocols of seeker sensitivity are not seeker sensitive. This is a shame, for seeker sensitivity can be as transformingly varied as Pentecost itself, as varied as cultures in all of their variegation. It can be alive, well, blessed of God in small churches, large churches, classical churches, so-called contemporary churches, growing churches and shrinking churches, for there is, after all, such a thing as growth by reduction. Biblical seeker sensitivity should speak a thousand ways. There is a place for the kinds that are highly intellectual and culturally elegant as well as those that may be more averaged out. There are all kinds of new wineskins, but only one kind of Truth. And the best, most biblical seeker sensitivity has always included a tension between what people need and what they should have. If there is no tension, no dissonance, seeker sensitivity--classical, popular, liturgical, charismatic, or convergent--collapses into the most pragmatic and faceless kind of market research.
For the next few moments, I would like to take the two words: seeker and sensitivity and reverse their order. This gives us sensitive seeker. Doing this will allow us to return to the biblical hierarchy of redemption: seeker-sought-seeking-found. We can put this hierarchy in the form of two questions: First: Who are the seekers? Second: What is seeking but part of an organic sequence in which seekers seek the sought, who, by being sought, are prompted in turn to seek and then become sensitized by what they are seeking?
From what I can tell from Scripture, seeking is God-initiated. There is one primary Seeker and an army of commissioned or delegated seekers. The primary seeker is God; the delegated seekers, the ambassadors, are those whose task it is to show ambassadorially that God is a reconciling, pursuing, uncompromising, loving Redeemer. This Eternal Seeker is at once the Interrogator ("Where are you?"), the Critic ("You are dead and need resurrection."), the Prescribing Teacher ("Here's what you must do to find me."), and the Answer ("I am your salvation; refusing me is death."). Through His Spirit both working freely where He will and empowering His ambassadors, the sought are confronted. The sought initially comprise the whole world, in that it is God's will that none perish and that all come to repentance; and the sought finally comprise those within this whole who become individually sensitized to seek and to find. So what we must first of all talk about is sensitive seekers driven by the Gospel and only then sensitized seekers who respond to it. Seeker sensitivity, by consequence, becomes something different than it is presently construed to be. Allow me to elaborate.
The story of redemption begins in Genesis, but not with the provisions of a skin covering or the promise that the serpent would be crushed by the all-powerful Savior. It began earlier, with a search and a question, asked in the cool of the day by the rejected Seeker who went seeking the newly insensitive. And knowing where to seek, He asked, "Where are you?" With this question, God the Redeemer once for all identified Himself as the unsought Seeker. He went hunting for Adam and Eve who were now sensitized to seek after strange gods. The story of redemption, this history-wide hunting story, continues from the Garden to the Flood to the finding of Abraham to the giving of the Law to the grieving, thundering welcome of the Prophets. This hunting story continued clean through the years and the dark, on to the quintessential Hunter himself, Jesus Christ, the final Yes and Amen to the entire hunting story. This is the real history of the redemptive and prophetic sensitivities of the primary seekers. Thus, the concept of the redemptively sensitive seeker takes precedence over that of a culturally, perhaps consumerist, defined seeker sensitivity. That is, unless we want to reverse two things: 1) the seeker-sought-found-convicted-seeking hierarchy, and 2) the sovereignty of the Gospel over the things of culture.
And we who comprise the present generation of sensitive seekers: we, the newest members of the hunting party, need first learn that the only way we can find those who may or may not be seeking is to go to everwhere saying, "Where are you?", not on our terms or theirs, but God's. And those who say "Here I am; I am naked and I am ashamed," immediately become subject to the redeeming graces of the Eternal Seeker, His claim on individuals, on culture, and His mysterious, paradoxical agenda of love, grace, protest, condemnation, and transformation and--mystery of mysteries--sometimes keeping the blind blind and the deaf deaf. We seem to have forgotten about this primary hierarchy of sensitized seeking and unconditional finding and have placed all the burden on the frail and flawed foundations of stylistic and cultural things, especially music. We hold nervously to the hope that the seeker (whoever that is) will not be made uncomfortable with the artifacts and artifices which accompany proclamation. And returning to the earlier metaphor, we place the burden on the wineskin instead of the wine. We simply cannot forget that the transformed wineskins of the Gospel are sensitive to the seeker, but in a way directly in contrast to the cracked and leaking wineskins of pseudo-sensitivity. And allow me to say again that consumerist seeker sensitivity can be as driven by the culture of classicism as that of popularism. No one is excused if, by the mechanisms of free-standing culture alone, they expect to do their work of evangelism.
This has to be true because Christ worked in ways which, as we examine them closely, are quite the opposite of many of our current stratagems. His gracious welcomes, on the surface appearing to be seeker sensitive, do not stand all by themselves. Instead, Jesus seemed often to create a culture of dislodgment, puzzlement, mystification, and mystery. It is clear that He proceeded this way in order to remain true to the Truth, to be sure that its unchanging nucleus was not softened or obscured by a fallen reading of what culture was (or is) and what it expected. He knew that a fallen heart made use of, and depended upon, the things of culture, in ways contrary to the Gospel. To Jesus, culture was to be continually in submission to Him--servant, not master--just as it should be to us. He knew it to be pagan to reverse this, to make culture--its processes, ways of thinking, its hierarchies and artifacts, the arbiter of evangelism. Otherwise, He would have met and communicated with people in an entirely different way. He would have given neater answers, He would given more signs, worked more miracles and explained everything away into the bliss of the pat answer. He would never have put the seekers in the many quandaries as reported in John 6-8. Thus, those whom He sought and those who were seeking Him and seeming to befriend Him nonetheless hounded Him here and there in a curious combination of disbelief, unbelief, non belief, repentance, hunger, confusion, and eventually, murder. For Jesus, both the Gospel and those created in His image were so important that He cheapened neither by a softened and smoothed out sensitivity. He saw beyond sins into sinfulness and beyond the outward expressions of culture and into its fallen mechanisms. He completely understood what it would cost to be conformed to the latter while making use of the former. He saw how cleverly the Evil One could make the mechanisms of the world appear to fit the mechanisms of righteousness and thus create a subtle, nearly unrecognizable syncretism.
In summary, a sensitive seeker is one who is prompted by unconditional love and driven by the where-are-you? question, continues in a message which cannot welcome without offending, convicting, and sometimes estranging. A biblically sensitive seeker, while aware of the need to communicate clearly and love unconditionally, need not succumb to the seeker's way of defining how these are to be communicated. In our seeking, we must comport ourselves the way Christ did.
We need to look at sensitive seeking and seeker sensitivity in yet another way, through the parable of the lost sheep. This is the story of a sensitive seeker going out, hunting down, and bringing--not attracting--the lost sheep into the place from which it had decided to stray. Now, if this sensitive seeker were seeker sensitive in the contemporary sense, he would have attracted the sheep by making the sheepfold look, act, feel, smell, and taste like the place to which the sheep had wandered. He would then have articulated this strategy somewhat as follows:
"Well, of course. The sheepfold must be attractive in the way the sheep desires it to be attractive, otherwise he would not be attracted to it and we might lose the sheep for good. Behind this attractiveness is the real sheepfold, cleverly hidden, but before the sheep finds out what the real sheepfold is really like, we must make it seem like the place it wandered to. What we want to do is to make both places, both cultures, seem so much alike that the sheep will feel no discomfort in the exchange of places. And then, we can eventually give this poor wanderling the straight stuff about the place we brought it back to. The locations, the cultures are neutral; what you see, feel, and respond to can remain the same. It's the radical difference in the message that counts."
But culture is not just abstract things. Culture is mechanisms, ideas, and ideas made into things. To a fallen person, things and ideas are fused together in a way no longer possible with a redeemed person. The fallen mind is the idolatrous mind. It is blinded into equating beliefs and handiwork, even creating beliefs out of handiwork. Thus using the usual things of a culture to ease people to Christ is doomed to trouble, because those being eased are neither able to separate the things of culture from its world view, nor to keep things in submission to the world view. By contrast, the truly Christian mind knows that equating things and ideas and allowing things to have control over beliefs are wrong from start to finish. This principle is based on the clear biblical separation between God's creation and God's revelation. And if these are distinguished, how much more must our proclamations of Truth and the cultural mechanisms that enliven them be distinguished? If it takes the maturing Christian no little amount of time to break out of a fallen view of how culture works, how can we expect the untransformed mind to learn it before they are given the Christian mind? And if they are not taught to do this at conversion, they will carry the defective principle into their new life. Just as in the biological world, flawed conception can lead to birth defects, so in the spiritual world. And the tragic thing about birth defects in either case is that, outside of a divine intervention, they stay with us for as long as we are alive. It is the presence of birth defects in the body of Christ that leads to defective worship, and from there, defective witness, for as we have observed previously, the way we worship will determine the way we witness. And the defective circle continues unabated.
There is another way of looking at this issue. In our growth and evangelism activities, we seem to be working with two opposing theological models. This can best be demonstrated by using two terms taken from the corporate world: policy and operations. It is my belief that we have developed a "policy" theology and an "operations" theology, each applied in different ways, each of step with the other, and the two together representing a sort of procedural dualism.
Policy theology (we could also call it vertical theology), is classically God-centered. It universally acclaims the sovereignty of God, the flawlessness of His love, His works and His redemptive grace. It speaks of His direct control over the world. It confirms His otherness and His transcendence, knit to His sworn purpose in redemption. It attests to the overpowering work of the Spirit, the enormity of the atonement, along with the irrelevance, even pettiness, of our efforts in trying to displace God while persuading people, and in trying to give Him advise and counsel. While honoring human creativity and culture, it keeps them in a place of submission. It disparages the ways of the world: its idolatry, its pride, its mechanisms, and manipulations. It celebrates the power of God to change people and move them toward Him, and is sworn to the Gospel as the power of God unto salvation. It engages in deep inquiry into fallenness, the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the mystery of godliness. It claims that faith alone saves and that the works employed in its spread are by themselves of none effect. Policy theology unites us in the articulation of a lofty, powerful and biblically sound paradigm, whether we march under the Reformed banner, the Wesleyan banner, the Anabaptist banner, or the common-ground banner. The actual theological dialects may vary from one to another, but they all grow from, and are fed by, common language made uncommonly powerful. And, in the most fundamental sense, policy theology is the theology of orthodoxy.
Then there is our operations theology, our horizontal theology. It fits more neatly into the spirit of the times and is strongly person-centered. This is the theology that determines how we go about our business--how we operate--and informs our concept of how God goes about His business--how He operates. This theology turns on a different matter. It interprets the nature of worship, the beauty of holiness, the scandal of the Cross, the nature, work, and foolishness of God through the works and devices of humankind. It depends on the works of culture as these may inform and guide the work of God, instead of the reverse. It is a theology which pays close attention to the power and feelings of people, the means of persuading them and changing their minds, as well as the power of things and techniques. It is our theology of marketplace and the machineries which drive it. While agreeing in the abstract, it works out to be less like biblical theology than theology conditioned by the behavioral sciences. It is therefore more descriptive than prescriptive.
Taken too far, this theology may change something as profoundly upsetting as conversion--the complete and substantive change of one thing into another thing--from substantive change into superficial change. Sin may be reduced to sins; sins, to mistakes; and mistakes into psychological dissonance. Holiness then can also be "converted" into spiritualized courtesies and aphoristic sayings; and cultural authenticity "converted" into cultural relevance. While policy theology calls for cultural transformation by proclaiming a conversion so God-empowered, so pentecostally radical, so mind-heart-life changing as to constitute a temporal version of the new creation of which authenticity and recreated creativity are the essence, operations theology illogically calls for transformation through the mechanisms of what culture already is.
For the sake of Christ and His Gospel, policy and operations theology must be of one cloth, woven by the master Weaver. This whole cloth cannot afford to be quite so American-- so pragmatic entrepreneurial, consumerist, and manipulative. It must be kingdomly, prophetic, meek, humble, and serving in an elegantly cultural way. Only then can we say that the Church truly is the most ardent champion of culture; so in love with it, in fact, that she will go to the death to invade it with newness: to sing new songs courageously and old songs newly; to create art that breathes the temporal surprise of the first day of creation and the eternal one of the new creation. Only in this way can the good things of any existing culture be converted into sanctified usefulness and, more importantly, transformed by the power of the Gospel. Paradoxically then, the Church can befriend the goodness found within any culture, uniting it with refreshed creativity, yet smiting in order to heal it.
On the basis of the preceding, we can summarize the whole of sensitive seeker and seeker sensitive thought this way: Salvation is the result of the Original Sensitive Seeker, who through His own undying initiative, looked for the first sinners, and promised that they and their Seed would trample the serpent. This great event and this everlasting promise initiated a chain of sensitive seeking, radical conversion and continued sensitive seeking. It led to a proclamation from Genesis through Malachi, from the Garden of Eden, through the Law, the prophets, to the Garden of Gethsemane, and directly to the very Cross that bore the Incarnate Sensitive Seeker. Through the power of His blood all sensitive seekers, lost in their sin and wandering in their seeking, are found, converted, and turned into redeemed sensitive seekers. Then, as the next generation of sensitive seekers, they continue in the train of the One of whom they are the ransomed Bride. In all of this, seeker sensitivity is not determined by the protocols of a confused, ambiguous and falsely worshipping culture, whose idea of meeting needs and being sensitive to those who seek, is based on the sensate, self-centeredness and coddling, but on the kind of sensitivity which results in speaking truth radically, non-apologetically, simply, foolishly, scandalously, and redemptively.
None of the foregoing would be quite so important if we were just talking about people as mere earthlings--mere deciders for Christ--participants in culture, operations, policy, new music, new art, or new this or that. But what is really at stake in witness in any theology of redemption is a theology of creation, including the bed-rock concept of what it means for each human being to be made, of all things, in the very image of God, to understand the horror of the damage done to it by the Fall, and to look into the enormous transformation and restoration that redemption brings back to it.
Satan may be a liar from the beginning, but He is extremely intelligent. He will do everything in his power to make us believe that the imago dei is either slow, dull, and lethargic, or intelligent and bright beyond all comprehension. Satan is the master dumb-downer and he employs two opposing kinds of dumbing down at once. First, the dumber He makes us look, the dumber it makes God look; and the dumber the entire lot of creation is made to look, the dumber the Gospel appears to be. He tempts the sensitive seeker to think that the world is too dumb, too sluggish, impoverished, and overtly incapable of grasping the reaches of the Gospel. He tempts the seekers to take it easy, to fill the Gospel with cultural and biblical baby talk. But, at the same time, he convinces the unconverted of their intelligence, sophistication and "cool." He works at getting unbelievers to assume that they are so intellectually with it and so clever that they have no need for the foolishness of the Gospel. And as St. Paul said, some assume the Gospel to be a scandal, while others assume it to be foolish. We cannot forget that Satan not only hates God, but in hating God, He cannot help but hate the image of God in people. And because He cannot tell the truth, He dresses as an angel of light and makes His hate for people to appear to them as love, telling them that the Gospel can only enslave and ensnare. I believe that many of our decisions to handle the sinner gingerly and with procedural timidity may well be prompted by Satan, dressed up for us, too, as an angel of light, urging the careful handling of the sinner, urging uncommon sensitivity, and feeding the Gospel in tiny, adulterated, and familiarized doses. He wants us to forget that being made in the image of God and being created a little lower than the angels is an unsearchable glory. He wants to lull the church into believing that only geniuses and intellectuals are capable of depths, heights, and paradoxical glories. And He wants us to believe that Christian witness will fail unless it is made into a kind of patty-cake recitation and nursery rhyme theology. If Satan is going to lose souls to Christ, He may as well work to insure that they are barely saved, defectively formed and continually short-changed, and perpetually worldly. He wants us to forget that in making most of the world average, God intended that the richness, mystery, puzzlement, the heights and depths of the Gospel are for average people, not for those who have been given special skills to "dope it all out." Satan desparately wants to dupe us into believing that making Christianity easy and attractive to the so-called sensitized seeker is the right thing. He does not want us to realize that much of our witness dumbs the Gospel down, dumbs down a creation full of imago deis, and separates the magnificence of the human race from the magnificence of the Creator.
We need to be freed from this spell and freed to understand that the Gospel should be hard because people were created to imitate no lesser being than God. The Gospel should be a scandal to the unregenerate, because to be anything else lowers the threshold for what it means to be made and restored into nothing other than God's image. The Gospel should be a stumbling block, not because Christians are snobs or sadists, but because the terrible mystery of godliness demands it, because the depths to which Christ went to redeem us demands it, because the wonderful profundity of God Himself demands it. This toughness is what assures the free flow of grace both to the little child, who dances over the stumbling block because her faith is so unencumbered, and to the adult who hits face first into the bluntness of Truth. scandalized, stumbling and hungry. Only after we comprehend this, are we ready for the ultimate paradox: The Gospel is easy the way Christ's burden is. It is easy the way faith makes it easy. It is easy the way Truth enables its entry into a hungry and seeking heart. But it is not easy the way so many of the tippy-toers have made it easy, because their perception of ease is to confuse ease with easing up--easing up on the very things that must remain tough, so tough that faith alone can be unto faith, the Spirit alone can be unto Spirit, Truth alone can be unto more Truth, and worship will be unto continuing worship.
We cannot forget that it is not cultures that are at stake, but individuals who, one by one, create cultures: the billions of imago deis. These billions are not an abstract mass fed by mass culture or mass ecclesiology, but unique creations. If we pay too much attention to the newer breed of socio-theologians, we will assume that a given cultural or sub-cultural condition is the chief reference point for what its people are and what they are capable of.
How do we measure the capabilities of the image of God? Not with studies, not with bell curves, not with the anthropologist's warnings to leave other cultures as they are, and not with a confused multiculturalism. Dumbing down the imago dei, dumbing down the finite image of an infinite God, dumbing down this curiously wrought, mysteriously made creature, of which the second Adam's humanity is our true picture; and above all, dumbing this image down in the name of making the faith attractive and accessible comes very close to blasphemy. For what it does is to suggest to God in rather clear language that the Gospel minimally saves people--cleans them up somewhat-- so that they can continue to be dumbed down in their new-born condition, instead of being given a new life, newly created, washed clean, Spirit-inhabited, Christ-minded, and capable of enormous reaches of creativity, wisdom, and profundity. As I said a few moments ago, we're not talking about genius or virtuosity, but the person-by-person image of God shown, more than anywhere else, in average people whom Truth can stun only to set them free; whom the Truth can press into unfathomable things, into the deepest kind of living, the most creative and integrative kind of thought, and the most stewardly practice of life itself.
We can now speak more particularly speak about the arts, especially music. One of the great recoveries of the Reformation was the supremacy and power of the Word of God. One of the great tenets of historical evangelicalism is its attention to the scriptures as the word of God and to the preaching of the Gospel in its ambassadorial, prophetic and evangelistic dimensions. In all of this, music, and to a lesser degree, other art forms, have played a singular role. And there has always been some kind of debate about how music is to be used, as well as what kind, how much, and what its content and use together signify. This debate is as it should be, given the nature of music itself, for it is a most curious art form. As with no other, it is the most abstract. It cannot proclaim anything but itself. It possesses no sliver of interior moral meaning and is utterly incapable of what we can call Truth speech. While music is the most ambiguous form of communication, speech and speech logic--as flawed as they are--are the most particular and the most accurate. As to how music and Truth compare we can say Truth is context informing and music is context absorbing. Because of music's abstractness, its affective nature, its ability to seek out and be absorbed in any number of ways--as background, middle ground and foreground; because of its ubiquity and overall flexibility, music has the potential for everything from temperate and masterful usefulness to overt abuse. It is, in short, a marvelous servant and a dangerous master.
There is now more music, and more kinds of it, than ever before in the history of civilization. Music is virtually omnipresent, so much so, that, as to intrinsic significance, it has become absent. In the words of George Steiner, music has become the new literacy of modern society. In the larger context of contemporary culture, this is alarming. If music is the new literacy; if in its omnipresence it is significantly absent; and if, even in its insignificance, it is one of society's mass addictions; this must mean that other literacies have somehow passed away or faded into a lesser significance. Not a few of us are concerned about the breaking down of spoken language, the gradual disappearance of morally centered speech logic. Propositional truth is passˇ and a civilizational moral center has been deconstructed into moral relativity. The great vocabularies of Truth speech have become exhausted, both through this loss of a moral center and, through the verbal and semantic intemperance of an advertising/sales mass culture. This loss of moral center has further revealed the innate weakness of language, namely its potential for meaninglessness. The deconstructionists have come upon this, even though they are forced to use what remnants of speech logic remain to say that there is no speech logic. And our consumer driven ethos has generated a preference for the superlative to the extent that something as trivial as a pizza, or as transient as an orgasm, is regularly declared to be awesome. What words, then are left for God?
Enter music into this dilemma. Enter this speechless speech, this new, affective and addictive literacy. And above all, enter music into worship--huge quantities of it--into praise, church life and church growth. Who would deny that when it comes to church growing and church choosing, most everything turns on musical style, not Truth? Current wisdom says that if you want church growth, change the music. Most people come and go--as church shoppers or relatively stationary citizens--on the basis of music. Who would deny that, even more than the preaching, it is the music on which the whole of worship planning and seeker sensitivity turn: music, this new addiction, Truth-dumb, insignificant significance, this affective "tool" for making all the rest feel right; this music, depended upon so heavily on to lead properly into the sermon; this music, which makes the rest appear to be or not to be "with it;" this music which has become another form of shooting up, even in worship. And in many cases, hymn books, pipe organs and other memorabilia are no longer the drugs of choice. They donÕt work anymore. Their effect has worn off. This older musical stuff-- the phenobarbital--has to be replaced by the newer stuff--the xanax. It has turned out to be the new intermediary, the new paraclete, despite its inherent indeterminacy, its speechlessness. In the present climate of musical addiction, music has come to mean something quite the opposite of what the Scriptures intend it to be: a singular act of worship, offered by people who have been schooled by the elegant precision of Truth itself and schooled into knowing that music is an action, not an aid to an action. In the scriptural sense, music is perfume, not Truth; perfume only to be poured over Jesus' feet instead of a substance we shoot into our spiritual veins to feel good by or to worship because of. Instead, familiarity and repetition have become our contemporary Christian mantras, taking precedence over newness, simple goodness, and mystery. Hymnbooks and pipe organs, with a flip of the socio-theological wrist--some 1500 years of solid, tested, refined, theologically and aesthetically jam-packed tradition--are pretended into irrelevance by those whose own narrowness will be transmitted in a few years to someone else. How many music programs have either been chucked or blessed depending on how they serve as the fulcrum for the rest of the program? And since the so-called seeker is sensitive only to the emptiness of a secular and un-centered culture, it is no wonder that seeker sensitivity has taken precedence over sensitive seeking. And lest the lovers of classical music jump too easily to the conclusion that the foregoing only applies to popular music and Christian Contemporary, they are wrong. For some churches, in their own brand of seeker sensitivity, will stick with Palestrina or Bach for the very same reason that others will switch to something more contemporary. User friendliness and seeker sensitivity is no respecter of style.
At the same time, none of the foregoing is meant to demean the best of popular culture, or to imply that nothing good can come of it or be made out of it. Popular art, speech and music, the best of them--are outrightly wonderful. They are, in fact, necessary. And had artists and aesthetic philosophers of the last century-and-a-half not crafted so many false distinctions between classical and popular, we would be living more easily in an integral, creatively unified society, a wonderful variegation bound together by love, respect, and interchange: a veritable Pentecost of creativity. In this context, the problem with most of popular culture, especially the cheapened versions of it, is that it is shallow. As legitimate as the shallow is, shallow is not enough. It is not that popular music and art can't fit anywhere in the life of the Church. They can. The problem is, they are incapable of going far enough, of penetrating the depths to which all humans are capable of going, especially those who are restored to the likeness of Christ through salvation. At best, the popular is milk. It nurses only the surface of the imago dei. The defense for profound art, for a probing intellect, and a worship which prefers the mystery of the godhead over goose bumps, is not a defense of a certain aesthetic standard. It is a defense for the incredibile capabilities of the imago dei. It is a defense for meat--cultural meat, artistic meat, theological meat, Truth meat.
I close with a very simple observation and an equally simple plea. In all of our churchly activity--and let's assume for a moment that it is all good--in all of this activity: worship, praise, liturgical richness, theological rightness, musical diversity and excellence, growth, graded choirs, orchestras, banners, fine sanctuaries, sophisticated Christian education, support groups, Stephen ministries, programs for the homeless, counseling services, sensitive seekers participating in the best kind of seeker sensitivity; in all of this, how much time have we reserved for broken, prolonged, heart-crushed intercessory prayer for a lost world? How much have our programs become our Paracletes? How much have they replaced the need to pray? To what extent have we substituted ecclesiastical engineering for that which God alone can do, if He were but to be convinced that we cared enough to pray? And as for the praying that we actually do, how much of it is over physical healing--things as inconsequential as broken arms, fevers, and chicken pox? To what extent do we learn more about the human anatomy in prayer meetings than we would in medical school? To what extent have worship and praise themselves become so important, so intoxicating, so persuasive that they have supplanted our weeping over the Jerusalems of our culture? To the extent that they have, they become nothing, as all idols are. Programs, no matter how theologically correct and excellently structured will never substitute for the broken and incessant, oftimes groaning intercession, for which only the speechless groanings of the Blessed Paraclete are sufficient? Read the story of the importunate widow. Spend time with the passage from Isaiah 62:1 and 6: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not keep quiet, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation like a torch that is burning. . .You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves; and give Him no rest until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth." Spend time with these and then ask how much you and your churches pester God and then pester Him all the more. Where are our priorities and upon what common ground are they based, that of programs or that or Spirit-fired intercession? How much time do we spend praying over our plans rather than praying so effectively that God's intervention becomes its own plan?
So, let us take the twin glories of the Body of Christ: worship as living sacrifices, in spirit and in truth, enlivened from within by the beauty of holiness; and witness, in which our worship is overheard; in which we follow hard after the Incarnate Sensitive Seeker into our sensitive, prophetic, and empowered seeking; in which we intercede without ceasing in humility, brokeness, and faith-driven hope. Let us add a third: powerful interceding prayer. These together are common ground. Encamped with us there are grace, mercy, peace, love, revival, unity, rest, humility, excellence, worship, witness, joy and peace brought together by the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Author and Finisher. Come, let us feast on common ground.