The Evil of Banality

Some people who until recently I considered my friends introduced me to Rebecca Black’s ‘song’ “Friday“. In brief, in “Friday” everything that could possibly go wrong with a song, has. It puts me in mind of an old Muppets sketch where a piece of music is given to The Electric Mayhem and they are asked ‘what can you do with this?’. Zoot – the saxophonist – replies ‘well, if you give me a match, I can put it out of its misery’.

I don’t wish to be overly harsh on Rebecca. She’s 13. Her problem is that her problems are those of a 13-year-old, and even then they are the problems of a well-off middle-class white American. They therefore don’t make for particularly good source material for a song. There’s no narrative, there’s no friction, there’s no hook. There’s no hook musically either – there’s no real melody to speak of, no interesting chord progression, no complexity. It’s a song written – both lyrically and musically – in crayon.

At this point I am not going to trot out that hackneyed old untruth that one should only write what one knows. If that were true we would have no science-fiction or fantasy. A much more accurate aphorism, therefore, is that one should only write about that with which one can empathise. It is this power of imaginative association, the ability to understand, that gives literature most of its power and almost all of its value. It is what enables ‘poetry after Auschwitz’; it is why Seamus Heaney was able to write that he was one ‘who would connive / in civilised outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.’ There is always a complicity between the author and the thing authored, and however many tricks are employed to avoid that juxtaposition, in the end it remains inescapable.

I read widely, and I have read some truly awful books. I have read Stephanie Meyer. I have read Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins. But what I don’t understand – and I know I’ve said this before, but bear with me – is why there are so many Christian authors who are simply appalling at being authors. In the light of the aforementioned complicity, I find this worrying.

I will try to set out my questions as simply and as clearly as possible, so that if any of you have any answers you can provide them. These are not rhetorical questions: I really want to know.

1. Popular Christian books appear to be written for idiots. With a popular science book on a complex subject – like, for instance, quantum mechanics – I would expect the more basic, premise-establishing opening chapters to lead into progressively more detailed chapters on the subject. I would expect the basic ideas to appear and then be enhanced as additional, more complicated information appears. This is not a progression I see in similarly themed Christian books. You want an understanding of Grace? God is good, so He is gracious to us! And…err…that’s it! That isn’t an argument, it isn’t the progression of an idea facilitating comprehension. It just leaves the idea stranded, gasping for life like a fish left flapping on a beach. Why does this happen? Why are no theologians first getting down in the muck with us plebs, and then lifting us out of it? Who is the theological equivalent of Ben Goldacre or Jack Cohen or – heaven forefend – Richard Dawkins?

A further problem presents itself. If Christian books are written for idiots, and treat the people reading them as idiots, and the authors appear to offer no deeper insight or path toward conclusion, can we really blame the rational secularists who treat all Christians as idiots? If everything suggests Christians are intellectually subluminescent, can we honestly find fault in – for example – Christopher Hitchins if he concludes that Christians don’t really think the difficulties of their faith through?

2. Christian prose is either manic or comatose. (This may be a larger problem than mere literature: there seems to be an increasing polarisation of church services along similar lines too). That which is not incendiary is pedestrian; that which is not hidebound is frenetic. “God is good all the time” may well be true (and a great truth at that), but saying it for 300 pages with only minor changes in vocabulary does not a worthwhile book make. So my question is, where are the good writers? Where are the men and women whose technical ability matches their desire to write in the first place? I can think of very few, and the only one still alive is Adrian Plass.

3. There being so much bad Christian literature about, what is the excuse that can be offered in its defence? This, to me, is perhaps the most intractable problem of all. Modern Christian music may well be (and in my opinion, mostly is) ‘fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music’, as one eloquent apologist once put it (though he then defended it, not because it wasn’t sixth-rate, but because it was sung with genuine devotion, which is the more important thing), but how do we defend such a thing in terms of its quality? How can we? Where did the idea of doing one’s utmost for His highest fall by the wayside? That is of course to take the worst view of it – that the people involved in the hymn’s or book’s creation were too lazy to make a good job of it. But it is not much less troubling if we are more charitable. Suppose this doggerel really is the best the author could do – does this confer more worth on it? No one doubts their devotion – only their merit. At its best Christian art is among the very best of all art ever made – Michaelangelo’s David, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the poetry of Dante and Milton and Donne and Hopkins, the Book of Common Prayer, the music of Bach and Handel – all can stand up to be counted with the greatest achievements of the human race. My question now is, why has there been such a sharp and catastrophic falling off of genuine worth? It didn’t used to be the case that the devil gets all the best tunes – but ask me to choose between the complete works of Hillsongs and the complete works of Led Zeppelin and I know who I’d consider more aesthetically worthwhile.

I know there is an argument against this. The argument usually runs something along the lines of “Well yes, musically, Led Zeppelin are probably better. But the lyrics aren’t as edifying, and that’s the point of Christian music.” This is not a good argument, and it’s an argument that I’ve heard before. It used to be advanced by proponents of badly-written Science-Fiction. “Yes, I know the characterisation is paper-thin, and the plot is pedestrian – but the ideas are spectacular.” In the case of Christian Music, the defence – as was offered above – was that the devotion of the listener was what mattered. But doesn’t that sidle away from the real problem? There would be no need to mount that defence if the music itself was impervious to musical criticism. I return to the original question: why must we put up with fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music when our God is worth the best of both? Why shouldn’t Christianity’s music be vibrant, its lyrics fresh and deep, its literature illuminating and intoxicating? Shouldn’t it, in fact, be more likely to be these things, given the nature of the One to whom it is primarily offered?

4. Are we, as Christians, so hamstrung by the defence mounted above – that the devotion is the important thing – that we have become unable or unwilling to winnow out the chaff of the qualitively unacceptable? There is a song in a hymnbook that begins with the immortal lines “I want to be a blooming tree / Bear more fruit than Sainsbury’s”. Leaving aside the sheer ludicrous crashing awfulness of the thing, what concerns me more is a) no one was prepared to say that this really is not good enough for the hymnbook, and b) now that it’s in the hymnbook, some people will feel obliged to sing it. There are other great examples of the same sort of thing. What does “Rise up church on broken wings” actually mean? It’s my job to deconstruct metaphors, ones much more elaborate than this, but the ones I deal with on a daily basis have some kind of connection to the thing they talk about. This is an interesting image, but not one that appears tethered to any kind of sustained metaphor, or even perceived reality, concerning the nature of the Christian church today[1].

This sort of thing concerns me. I’ve never quite been able to suppress or move past the idea that Christians are ambassadors for Christ. Christian art, therefore, must be able to stand as art, first and foremost, whose aim is to glorify God. Our aesthetic sensibilities are as God-given as any other part of our beings. That which offends them, almost certainly, is not the greatest offering we could bring to He who offered all for us. It is also unlikely to impress those who are not Christians. I sometimes wonder how tone-deaf, and how insensitive to suffering, would be the god who considered ‘Great is the Darkness’, with its hideous clash of music and lyrics, the greatest hymn offered in his name.

So in conclusion, and to compress my arguments to their shortest possible form, my questions would be these: Why do we offer God such paltry fare? Why do we consider this acceptable? Why does there not appear to be a more strenuous discernment in what is, or is not, ‘good’ in terms of Christian art? Where can one go for legitimate, grown-up edification? And how have we managed to get ourselves into this mess in the first place?

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Finally, some good music (non-Christian, but you were expecting that by now, weren’t you?) Via the wonder of Facebook, I have reconnected with an old friend from my school days, Stephen Macartney (in fact I believe we even went to nursery school together!). Stephen is in a band called Farriers, and they – it turns out – are seriously good. But you need not merely take my word for it. The link above will take you to a downloadable 5-track EP (you know it’s worth the £3. You do. You know this because you can listen to all the tracks in order to determine this) that will demonstrate their listenability. Below, I provide the Farriers live in Lagan Meadows. Enjoy!


[1] The complete verse is:

Rise up church with broken wings
Fill this place with songs again
Of our God who reigns on high
By His grace again we’ll fly

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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15 Responses to The Evil of Banality

  1. stewart says:

    Gavin
    I fear you may be right,every christian i have discussed religion with(with yourself as an exception(and one other))either desparately lacks imagination, the ability to question and often a sense of humour.

    It is perhaps that most christians are told to believe rather than think and certainly told not to question from such an early age that they become incapable of imagination and genuine creation of new ideas and art.

    Although i heard the killers are mormons but that may not be ntrue and they produce good music. To be fair though you’d need a pretty good imagination to swallow what mormons are taught!!! 😉

    later

    s

    • starlingford says:

      Hi Stewart

      I think it is unfair to say that Christians lack imagination. In fact, I think it is more accurate to say that the opposite is true. You say they are told to believe rather than think. Very well, but what is it that they are told to believe? That God became a man, died, descended into Hell and was raised to life again? That the universe is filled with spiritual beings – angels and demons both – who actively intervene in human affairs? That the triune Godhead is both simultaneously more than could ever be comprehended while at the same time sweetly familiar? All this requires imagination. It must. Direct observation is insufficient: revelation and faith are where the rubber hits the road in the intellectual life of a believer. And make no mistake – mainstream Christianity (never mind the Mormons) makes precisely those supernatural claims. A Christianity that denies them is, to my mind, so hopelessly adrift from its own tenets that it can no longer be called Christianity.

      My questions, therefore, are not so much to do with the inability of Christians to produce art (half an hour’s browsing of the greatest works of Western literature would pretty swiftly disabuse one of the notion) but rather the apparent current unwillingness. There are huge numbers of authors living in the world today, some of them very good indeed. There are huge numbers of Christians too. My question is, why do these categories seem not to coincide? Why are there so few, if any, good Christian authors?

  2. Seraph says:

    I’m afraid I don’t have any answers to your questions, Gavin, as they are similar to questions i’ve been asking myself for a long time (and funnily enough have been thinking and talking more about this past week). My issue, essentially the same as yours, is that, if we worship a God who created the universe, the single greatest, most complex and diverse piece of art ever made, why do Christians in general fail so spectatularly at demonstrating that imagination in literature and music. There seems to be a fear to tread out of certain genres, as if God only liked folksy soft rock and perhaps a bit of tame dance music. That doesn’t sound like the God I know.

  3. Eruntane says:

    I think the difficulty where music is concerned is that Jesus always placed such emphasis on the importance of what is in the heart. This makes it very difficult for one Christian to say to another: “This song may be your offering of worship to God, but frankly, it’s not very good and I don’t think it’s worth offering it.” One might as well tell the widow in the Temple that if she can’t offer ten denarii, God doesn’t want anything from her at all so she can just take her two small coins home again. I don’t say that it would never be appropriate to turn down a song that’s offered for publication – your “blooming tree” song does sound as though it might be a candidate for rejection – but I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t find it at all easy. Quite apart from the issue of not wanting to ask someone “Is this the best you can do? [Subtext: Because it’s terrible but if it’s your best work then we have to accept it in Christian generosity]” there is the equally thorny issue of personal taste.

    On the first line of my list of “Christian songs that should never have been written” is any song that presents “Na na na na na na hey” as a valid lyric. But again, you have to make allowances. A minister may choose to sing a song in morning worship that has several very bad lines, for the sake of one line that perfectly echoes what he has been saying in his sermon. Great is the Darkness is almost certainly not the greatest hymn offered in God’s name, but it may still have something to say to a particular congregation on a particular morning. A song that one person hates may be very meaningful to another person. While I loathe and detest Undignified with a great many of the fibres of my being, I can’t deny that it expresses, or aims to express, an abandonment of self before God that the Bible commends (and criticising it did not work out well for David’s wife). Part of being a member of the body of Christ, in my view, is singing this graciously when called upon to do so, for the sake of those who like the song, and then really going for broke when we sing something else I do like. The same is true of musical style. You prefer Led Zeppelin to Hillsongs. Fair enough, but there are probably people out there who don’t, and you cannot say that because Hillsongs isn’t Led Zeppelin, it isn’t worth anything. I have to disagree with you that the argument on the basis of lyrical content is an empty one. It is what is in the heart that counts for more than anything else. Jesus said so.

    In terms of literature, I think the challenge to Christian writers is twofold. Firstly, a few greats of Christian literature, and one in particular (you know the one I mean), set the bar so high that nothing that is written seems as good by comparison. I would hazard a guess that quite a few Christians who might feel tempted to try writing something are put off just by the fear that their work would seem a pale imitation. Secondly, Christian writers have to walk a veritable tightrope: resisting the temptation to water down the Christian message for fear of how the book will be received, avoiding glorifying their characters’ failings while still making them believable and sympathetic, creating a good story to carry a message that, we know, many people will find offensive, finding ways to weave the exploration of Christian doctrine into good, fluid prose that doesn’t involve long, turgid paragraphs or completely wooden dialogue. I do not say this as an excuse for the offerings of such as LaHaye and Jenkins, or the Shack guy, or, to go back a couple of centuries, Martha Finlay, and I certainly don’t claim to enjoy what they have written. I just want to make the point that writing good Christian literature is not even remotely easy, and maybe we need to accept that it is a gift given to only a few.

    I think the conclusion I would draw is this: that those Christians who have been given the gift of music, or literature, or art, or anything else for that matter, should absolutely, definitely be using it for God’s glory. No doubt about that. But where some Christians who don’t have that gift have attempted to use it anyway, and have made the results public, other Christians should tread very softly indeed. If one paragraph in a mediocre book causes one person to understand a bit better who their Heavenly Father is, can we risk passing judgement on whether or not that book should have been written / published? By all means use the critical faculties God has given you to evaluate books and music and art in worldly terms, by all means accept that you have personal tastes which mean you take no enjoyment in some things that other people do enjoy, but never forget that this world is not our home, and that in the next world the picture will be bigger and a lot different.

    • starlingford says:

      Hi Jo

      I think a fairer analogy, with reference to the widow’s mite, is that in this case she didn’t put in 10 denarii or even two obols but rather a small stone she found in the road. We both agree, I suspect, with Adrian Plass’s devastating observation that sometimes the phrase “the Lord gave me this poem” rather suggests that the good Lord was delighted to get rid of it. That was what I had in mind. And my issue with ‘Great is the Darkness’ is not the lyrics, or the music, but rather the two together – played at the correct speed, and in the correct key, the *music* for that hymn suggests that it ought to be sung:

      Great is the darkness that covers the earth – yippee!
      Oppression, injustice and pain – hallelujah!
      Nations are slipping in hopeless despair – whoop-de-doo!
      Though many have come in Your name – wahey!

      And so on and so forth. (And now that I have pointed this out, I defy you, next time you’re singing it, to resist the temptation to add ‘jazz-hands’ to your worship).

      I’m not at all sure about the issue of Christian generosity. Is it generous to deceive someone into believing that they have a gift that they do not, in fact, possess? Is it a kindness to accept the unacceptable on the basis that a refusal may offend? Or is it the case that tact is more troublesome than acquiescence? I would, I think, draw a distinction between that which is ‘tolerable’ and that which is ‘good’. I would encourage the latter over the former. I agree with you entirely, on the other hand, with your point about gracious singing. But I don’t think more grace in the body of believers means more acceptance of what is substandard. That is certainly not how Divine grace operates – yes, we are accepted into the body, wretched sinners though we be. But we are not called upon to remain that way once accepted. We are to be remade, improved, made better. Can we not make the same demands of our worship – that it be made better, that it sounds (poor relation though it will inevitably be) more like the choirs of the angels?

      As regards the Led Zeppelin / Hillsongs contrast: my point was that Led Zeppelin had admitted into their hearts and lives the possibility of chords other than G,C and D. (I know that is not entirely fair – ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ is an example of a Hillsongs hymn which, musically, I like a great deal. And some of Robin Mark’s stuff is as good as anything sold in HMV). It *is* possible to say that some people are simply more gifted at writing music than other people – I wrote music for my music GCSE, but that doesn’t mean I’m comparable to Mozart. My question was rather (and this ties into your point about literature) ‘where are all the talented people who happen to be Christian?’

      I’m not at all convinced that ‘the bar is too high’ is the genuine deterrent you seem to think it is. You and I both write poetry. Neither of us is of comparable quality to, say, Seamus Heaney, or Louis MacNeice, or any of a list of literally thousands. But (and this is my point) *that didn’t stop either of us writing the poems*. So I reject the idea that knowledge of previous writers’ work deters writers: as you and I both know from experience, it is far more likely that the opposite is true. Great writers tend to inspire, not put off.

      As for the tightrope, allow me (oh, go on!) to quote our dear friend Lewis:

      “It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step in the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, that can beat the ‘Penguins’ and the ‘Thinker’s Library’ on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and *of course* its science perfectly honest. Science *twisted* in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.”

      The idea of ‘latent Christianity’, outwith explicitly Christian literature such as that provided by Stott or Yancey, is, I submit, perhaps the best description of the path along the tightrope you describe that I have yet encountered. The problem is, I can think of almost no one who manages it. Can you? (I’m genuinely looking for suggestions here!)

      As for your final paragraph, are you not mistaking the tool for the tool-wielder? Of course God can use whatever he desires for the purpose of instructing His children, or leading sinners to Him. But we must be careful in what we then excuse on those grounds. It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Is it, on those grounds, not therefore our Christian duty to keep the world at war? Adrian Plass has said that “God always uses inadequate people. He hasn’t got any other sort to deal with.” I agree entirely. My point is simply this: if we are providing God with inadequate tools that, through His grace, still prove effective, shouldn’t we still strive to manufacture the best tools that we can? And shouldn’t there, somewhere along the line, be some kind of critical faculty performing the function of some kind of quality control?

      Gavin

      • Eruntane says:

        Hi Gavin

        Thanks for this debate, I’m enjoying it.

        Firstly, and in order to get the flippancy out of the way at the start, I would find it very difficult to include jazz hands next time we sing Great is the Darkness at Gilc, since this song is always given to the band (perhaps because the pianist is also glad to be rid of it) and jazz hands and oboes really don’t mix… And to be completely fair to the song, the incongruity of words and music has pretty much disappeared by the end, when you get to:

        Our great commission complete,
        Then face to face we will meet.

        I completely agree with you that it is wrong to encourage someone to believe that they possess a gift they don’t. Adrian Plass draws a good example in one of his books about what that kind of thing can lead to – I think it’s An Alien at St. Wilfred’s but I may be mistaken. But accepting the unacceptable? Who decides what constitutes ‘unacceptable’? You may know the song Teach me to dance to the beat of your heart – or, not being of the dancing persuasion, you may not know it. No matter. My cousin Andy has this song pretty high up on his own list of “Christian songs that should never have been written”. My dad, on the other hand, likes it so much that my parents had it sung at their silver wedding service. Who should decide whether or not this song is acceptable for worship or whether it should be struck out of the hymnbook, and how would they go about making this decision? Where the Bible gives no guidance, how do we determine what is ‘the standard’? The Church has enough difficulty agreeing about things on which the Bible does give clear guidance, as you and I well know.

        I completely agree with you, and with C.S. Lewis, about the need for ‘latent’ Christian literature. I can’t think of any that I’ve read recently – the two that I think come closest would be The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, but although these both portray Christianity in a (mostly) favourable light, I’m not sure that either author is actually a Christian.

        I also agree with you that in everything we do, we should strive to do the best we possibly can. Perhaps that does imply the necessity for some kind of quality control. But I repeat: who, and how? And if a person produces a song or a book or a painting which really does represent their best work but which is ‘sub-standard’ in the eyes of said quality control, what then?

        Jo

      • starlingford says:

        Hi Jo

        As regards the thematic progression of ‘Great is the Darkness’, you may be right that the incongruity disappears by the end of the hymn. But wouldn’t it have been much better, on almost every level imaginable, if the music progressed along with the lyrics? Couldn’t there have been a transition from, say, a minor to a major key? Or couldn’t the lyrics have been better balanced in the first place? The opening verse contains very little theology, and nothing which isn’t spectacularly obvious in the first place. It seems incongruous, to say the least, in a hymn…

        As far as your question about ‘who shall judge’…isn’t that the entire purpose of the gift of discernment? It would, I think, be a mistake to assume that the person making those decisions is doing so entirely divorced from God’s guidance. I would consider the person appointed to do the job to be quite separate from a secular music critic. It’s like the difference between a minister and a lecturer. Both may speak on the same topic, but they have radically different reasons for doing so, and they have radically different resources at their disposal.

        As for dancing…how well you know me! (Admittedly, I have danced with you. But that was on your wedding day, and even I didn’t think I could get away with refusing!) But your point reminds me to be careful of my own prejudices, and to acknowledge them for what they are. May I quote Pride and Prejudice?

        ‘ “By the bye, Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield? I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.”
        “If you mean Darcy,” cried her brother, “he may go to bed, if he chooses, before it begins– but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough, I shall send round my cards.”
        “I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of the day.”
        “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.” ‘

        A church service carried out entirely according to my wishes alone might be far more congenial to me; yes, but not near so much like a church. Churches can only function through grace, but one of the requirements that must be fulfilled is that that grace is not abused. It is possible to graciously turn down someone’s poem/chorus/painting, just as it is possible to graciously accept it. And it is equally possible to graciously accept that editorial decision. But that graciousness is a signifier of a mature Christian – that is the development we must each pray for of our own volition.

        Your thoughts?
        Gavin

      • Eruntane says:

        Hi Gavin

        You may quote Pride and Prejudice whenever the mood takes you, but I must say I never expected to hear you align yourself with Caroline Bingley…

        What you are advocating, I think, is an ideal-world scenario, in which the body of Christ works the way it’s supposed to: those appointed to approve or reject creative offerings to God do so fairly, with discernment and with great tact and grace towards all comers. Those whose offerings are rejected accept the decision equally graciously. This seems about as close to Heaven as we can get – my guess is that in Heaven the issue won’t arise because nobody will be able to offer substandard worship.

        This is, I completely agree with you, what we should all aspire to and pray for, but as long as we inhabit our frail, fallen humanity I just don’t see how it can possibly be made to work in any but a few cases. On the whole, I think it could prove disastrous, and do much more harm than good to the body of believers. (Like communism – if we were all incorruptible it would work, but we ain’t so it don’t.) There is, I grant you, scope for this kind of discernment in the role of professional publishing editor, whether it be a worship songbook or a Christian anthology / magazine / publishing house, and in these spheres discernment should be exercised much more than it really is. (You’re right, Great is the Darkness could have been improved by any of the means you suggest, and I daresay by a few others besides.) But consider the example of a minister who is approached by one of his congregation who feels that the Lord has given them a poem and told them to share it with the fellowship by reading it aloud during the Sunday morning service. (Assume that this is a church in which the form of worship is quite flexible, so the excuse of “I’m sorry but we just don’t do that here” isn’t available.) The minister may have strong suspicions that this poem is one that the Lord gave away in order to get rid of it, and he may even attempt to dissemble by suggesting that “I don’t think we can quite fit it in this Sunday, but perhaps another week”, but if the worthy parishioner is persistent, sooner or later he is going to have to make a decision.

        Last Wednesday in Bible study we were asked to think of examples of ways in which we have to die in order that others may live (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:10-11). One that our group came up with was the situation in which you know that you are right and another person is wrong, and that in five well-chosen sentences you could flatten their argument completely. We agreed that part of loving your neighbour is sometimes just walking away and letting him carry on being wrong, even though it feels as though you’re trampling your own self-respect underfoot by not asserting your rightness (or, as we might more readliy phrase it to ourselves, we are doing our neighbour an injustice by not helping him to a correct understanding of the situation.) I really think – and this may be where we have to agree that we’re never going to agree – that here is another case in point. The loving thing for that minister to do, even though he knows the poem is probably not very good, even though he knows that even genius is not enough to worship the God of Heaven with, even if he knows that someone else in his very congregation could write something that starts to approach good poetry, is to allow the person to read their poem, rather than telling them that it is not good enough to be included in public worship. (Of course, for “read my poem” you could substitute “perform this song I’ve written” or any number of other things.)

        If the worthy parishioner finds that they quite like the sensation of reading their work aloud and starts requesting to do it again and again, at this point I think the minister has to say “No, once in a while is one thing but a church service isn’t open mike night.” But this is a separate issue from the quality of the poetry. Neither do I suggest that the minister should say anything that would lead the aspiring poet to think that they have a gift for poetry. I just think that sometimes the more loving thing to do is to turn a blind eye to a fairly cringeworthy performance (and maybe try to inspire them to do better next time by pointing them in the direction of genuinely good Christian artists in the same medium – if you can find any…)

        Jo

  4. Browne the Younger says:

    Hey Gavin,
    Really enjoyed this post – and indeed the comments underneath it. The image of an entire church doing jazz hands to ‘Great is the darkness’ is going to stay with me for a looong time!
    By the way, if your problem with that song is the inappropriateness of the lyrics set to the music, surely Ringo Starr’s ‘Act Naturally’ is even more terrible?

    My own personal ‘oh-please-no-not-this-one-again’ is a song that we used to sing all the time in church: Did some digging, and discovered that it’s called ‘Your Love is Extravagant’ by Casting Crowns. Aside from the last verse, the whole song could be perfectly reasonably sung to your girlfriend. And it sounds like James Blunt on a bad day. AAARGH!

    As you know, I play bass in church and have done for many years now. It’s taken me years to learn this, and it won’t sound relevant to this discussion at all, but it is, trust me. Come with me here. This may provoke outrage, but anyhow:

    The Worship Team is not there to lead worship.

    I know that sounds like nonsense, but bear with me. The simple fact of the matter is this. If the worship group was there to lead worship, where would we musicians get our validation from? Well, we’d get it by seeing how the congregation responds to what we’re doing on the platform. But here’s the thing – people are thankless. Not ungrateful, necessarily, but definitely thankless. Mostly this is because people get used to things very quickly – if I played amazingly brilliantly when I was 15, lots of people would come up to me afterwards to compliment me and thank me. Seven years later? Tumbleweed.

    For many years I had to cope with a group leader who genuinely didn’t want to hear the bass guitar at all. I accept that I wanted to hear nothing else, and my teenage attitude to volume (and obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) was not helpful, but I was certainly not solely to blame. Week after week I wanted to play really well so that people would come up to me afterwards to congratulate me. Instead of which, when I desperately resorted to asking people how I’d done that morning, the universal reply was “I couldn’t hear you.”

    After a couple of years of this, something hit me. What was the point of seeking people’s applause? God, after all, gave me the gift. Shouldn’t I be using it for His sake? So, every week, just before the service, I’d quietly pray that He’d be the focus of my attention.

    After a while, I noticed something – and this is where we finally get around to your post. In focussing entirely on God, I had a much greater desire to actually play the instrument well. I’d got the gift, I’d got the talent, now I really wanted (and continue to want) to improve it. By paying no attention to the applause of anyone else, I started wanting to do My Utmost For His Highest.

    I didn’t start reading more Christian literature, or listening to more Christian music. What has happened is that I’ve started trying to learn chord shapes, new rhythms, new styles, and generally having a greater pool of musical knowledge upon which to draw.

    I have more to say about all this, but it’s a bit tangential to this post, so I’ll stick it up on Facebook for you.

    What has all this to do with writing and art? Well, I do think that some people are terrified into inaction or worn down by the fear of how people will treat what they do: yet another quote from Adrian Plass is that ‘The nice thing about Christians is that they stab you in the front.’
    If, however, you genuinely are trying to do your utmost for His highest – and Him alone – in my experience you have a much better idea of how good that bassline (/poem/idea for a book) really is. The upshot of which is that you may well write a poem expressing Christian ideals that is absolute drivel, but instead of running off to Authentic Publishing and trying to get it put in an anthology, you’re more likely to suck air in through your teeth and say “nice idea, needs a lot of work though – I think I’ll go and buy that book by Stephen Fry and learn some of the skills I clearly need.”

    And as for the banal drivel that occupies a lot of the shelf space in the Faith Mission Bookshop? That’s what happens whenever the writer doesn’t realise that a) writing is ‘not in their gifting’ or b) it is a gift, but there’s a skillset that needs to be learned.

    I think I’ve probably used up my daily allowance of your time and attention, so I’ll sign off here.

    Peace and God bless,
    Phil

    • starlingford says:

      Wotcha, Phil

      I agree that seeking validation from other people is usually a fruitless endeavour. I know too that our church back home is notoriously bad at thanking people (and I know that this is not a new thing. It has been a problem, judging by the minutes of church leadership meetings, for the last hundred years. You’d have thought a century would be long enough to buck the trend, but apparently not). Recently I was emailing someone on this very topic, the idea of thanking people in church, and I said this:

      “I think it is very important that you are properly thanked for all the hard work you have undertaken. (The bigger point at stake here is that if we, as a church, say we value people, and then do not take the opportunities that are available to thank them for their committment, a very unpleasant paradigm is set up that will cause nothing but trouble in the long run. This is, I’m afraid, the voice of sad experience!) In other words, you may blush to be brought to public attention, but there are important reasons to do with the nature of fellowship that mean that this ought to happen.”

      Those ‘important reasons’ are to do with the recognition of the differing roles we each have to play in the body of Christ:

      “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:3-5)

      Incidentally, ‘sober judgement’ would seem to head off at the pass many of the problems we have been discussing; sober judgement will recognise drivel for what it is long before it is inflicted on anybody else, and will do the decent thing of burying it in an unmarked grave at midnight. I have, in my time, written some truly dreadful poems/stories: recognising them as such, I’m not about to subject anyone to them.

      The idea of validation is, however, interesting in another way. In the introduction to the second ‘Source’ hymnbook Graham Kendrick, its compiler, notes how many of the songs that were offered for inclusion were mostly or entirely subjective in nature. Subjectivity is great – is, in fact, essential – for private worship, but not so much for corporate worship. ‘How Great Thou Art’ is both a subjective appreciation and an objective description; ‘I’m so attracted by your Love’ is entirely unsuited (it seems to me) to being performed by anyone other than its composer. (read the lyrics here: http://www.hymnal.net/hymn.php/ns/299)

      Validation is only a concern if the purpose of corporate worship devolves into the subjective, but corporate worship is (in some sense at least) about setting aside oneself and saying ‘Here we stand, the body of Christ, united under His banner, acknowledging our debt to Him, and coming together in His name to praise Him for what He is’. Why has that idea – fellowship, in the truest sense of the word – been so undervalued of late? When did we decide that we ourselves were so worthy of selfish satisfaction? (It may be a reaction to a phenomenon CS Lewis noted in an essay called ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’. But that is only tenuous supposition on my part).

      Thoughts?
      Gavin

      PS- that essay:

      http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/DCM-Lewis-2009/Lewis/meditation-in-a-toolshed.pdf

  5. Browne the Younger says:

    Hey Gavin.
    This is just a broad overview of what I think about corporate worship, so I may well raise more questions than I answer.
    I must first draw you up on one thing, though – the problem of thanklessness (an insignificance compared to the much more destructive and thankfully less widespread problem of ungratefulness in the church) is not a problem limited – or even best demonstrated – by our particular branch of the tree back home. In point of fact, it is something I have run up against in every single church I have ever been in, and seems to be particular to…well, humanity generally, I suppose.

    For me personally, the act of corporate worship is not the singing. The act of corporate worship is, in fact, the service as a whole – the most powerful image of christian unity is the sight of people walking through the door. In the service, the congregation decide INDIVIDUALLY – and through a movement of the Holy Spirit – to participate in what the people on the platform are doing – whether it be a bible reading, a sermon, or some songs. Being on the platform is a privelige, and a blessing. But not a summons to manipulate people.

    Equally, sitting in the pews is a privelige and a blessing. But not a summons to be manipulated. This requires discernment and an inner understanding of one’s own position and relationship with God. I know how much TeenStreet angers you, and here’s what I think has happened: The band, intoxicated by the roar of the crowd and blinded by the lights, feel like they have to put on a show…so they do. That is their fault, and I withhold no blame from them for it – fully understandable though it is. Equally, however, the teenagers (being as they are children who have grown up with MTV) lack the discernment to spot that that supposed ‘religious experience’ was, in fact, a perfectly timed and uplifting key change in the song the band happens to be singing. And round and round the circle goes, with only those teenagers who have actually developed that discernment quietly (or loudly) genuinely worshipping God.

    In any case, the band does not know the hearts of every individual person present, and so cannot supply all their spiritual needs – the attempt is doomed to fail. God, however, does know each person’s heart and can supply their needs (Put your trust in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart: Psalm 37:4).

    So the act of corporate worship is ultimately God meeting people individually, and the service provides the framework for that.
    With one exception, which oddly proves the rule. And it’s the act of worship Jesus himself instituted – the act of communion.

    ‘And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying “This is my body, given for you; do this in rememberance of me.” In the same way after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
    Luke 22:19-20

    These simple, sweet, profound and achingly sad words do far more than any song or sermon could do. They carve straight through all the crap the Christian religion has built up over the years, all the petty arguments and theological disagreements, and point us to God – a God who ripped the temple curtain in half and declared that we could meet with him. Individually – and that is what unites us.
    I’ll finish up with another few bible verses that get the point across:

    ‘He prays to God and finds favour with him, he sees God’s face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state. Then he comes to men and says, “I sinned, and perverted what was right, but I did not get what I deserved. He redeemed my soul from going down to the pit, and I will live to enjoy the light.”‘ Job 33:27-28

    ‘I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together…The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry’
    Psalm 34:1-3,15

    I get the distinct impression that both Elihu and David would be praising God even if there was nobody else there…

    Take care and God bless,
    Philip

    • starlingford says:

      Hi Phil

      Isn’t it true to say that thanklessness and ungratefulness are more connected than you are admitting? Isn’t the former simply a more obvious symptom of the latter? In other words, what is the point of gratefulness unless you express it? Can it, under those circumstances, even be said to exist at all?

      And as for the issue of the ‘Home Church’…it is notorious for it, certainly among those older memebers of the congregation who have seen it going on for periods measurable in decades. Sad, but undeniably true.

      I like what you have to say about TeenStreet. Yes, it did and does anger me, partly because it did seem to me to be fairly nakedly manipulative, and partly because of the defence that was offered as a result: “We are able to put people before God in such a way as He is able to break down the barriers they have erected”. There is an assumption of authority there that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The whole thing ties into a much deeper mistrust I have of anything that tries to persuade me by appealing to nothing more than my emotions. I don’t need to feel forgiven: I need to be forgiven, and then I need to know myself to be forgiven – a much more holistic process than any mood of mine, however skillfully played with, is able to replicate or facilitate. (This, at bottom, is the source of my mistrust of the charismatic movement. It’s also why I read the Guardian rather than the Daily Mail).

      I wonder, though, if we haven’t talked ourselves into a circle here: that God will supply the desire of your heart may well be true, but isn’t that the defence I described earlier? “Yes, this song is dreadful, but God can do amazing things with it”? The thing that offends me about it is the implicit assumption that God will have to ‘make do’ – and, because He can, it is right to demand that He does.

      I haven’t forgotten the pre-eminence of the individual’s relationship with God (see every Screwtape Letter I’ve ever written!), but rather, my concern was at the elevation of the self at the expense of fellowship even when fellowship is commanded: remember that ‘do this in remembrance of me’ was directed at all the disciples together. And remember, too, the sharp words of rebuke Paul addressed to the Corinthians when they forgot this:

      “When you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking? Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!
      …So, my dear brothers and sisters, when you gather for the Lord’s Supper, wait for each other.”

      Some hymns, it seems to me, are more properly fitted for individual singing (in, say, the shower – to which the rest of the congregation should not be invited!), just as we have our own homes for eating and drinking. But something different happens in a church.

      Your turn!
      Gavin

  6. Ruth says:

    Hello,

    I’ve already e-mailed you my initial thoughts on this topic, and briefly discussed parts with you in person as well, but I’ve been pondering some points further and thought I would share them here.

    Firstly, in terms of authors, I’ve been told that Alister McGrath is worth reading. I’ve done a quick google search and found this video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626# which is a debate between McGrath and Richard Dawkins. I’ve not watched all of it yet (haven’t had the time), but the few minutes I have watched make the video seem like it could be an interesting watch (however, if it isn’t, please don’t shoot the messenger!).

    Secondly, onto the topic of music. I pulled the very mean trick on you in my e-mail saying how the more modern Christian hymns had helped in my journey to become a Christian. Your response to that is listed above where you say, ‘if we are providing God with inadequate tools that, through His grace, still prove effective, shouldn’t we still strive to manufacture the best tools that we can?’ I agree with you on this point. Yes, absolutely we should all strive to do our best in our praise of God (for it’s the least He deserves from us), but a thought came to me this afternoon that maybe it’s also a case of creating the best tool for God to use to reach someone specifically. (Bare with me on this because I’m not quite sure how to express my thought fully).

    I told you in my e-mail how before I became a Christian a worship song of the modern variety broke my hardened heart, and that this was the catalyst that allowed me to take the final step and commit my life to Christ, but that was just the start. For me, worship and music in all its many forms is the thing that never fails to bring me closer to God. I might struggle with reading my Bible on occasions, and I might struggle with finding the right words to pray, but worship I can do no matter what. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve prayed to God for help/guidance/comfort and His answer has come to me through music. Last summer was a prime example – I was left feeling like my whole life had literally fallen down around me as things that I had been so certain on for years, things that I had staked my whole future career around, were stripped away. God’s answer to my prayers was to give me a song and that song reached me in a way that nothing else could have. The start of that song? “Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes I cry. Sometimes my heart wants to know why?” Yep, that was a pretty succinct description of how I was feeling at the time! I don’t know how many times I sung and listened to that song, but all I do know is every time I did sing it, I would give my all to God in praise and I would feel just that little bit better by the end of it.

    Also last summer, I was lucky enough to attend Creation Fest and I attended a song writing seminar with Brenton Brown (and I’m not ashamed to say that I love his music – the above song was one of his!). I attended not because I see myself as some great untapped song writing talent (far from it! Learnt that is not where my skills lay whilst trying desperately to compose my Standard Grade music piece), but because I wanted to understand the process. Looking back over my notes that I took that day, there are a few things that stand out, but the main one is this simple statement – “what you sing must be worth praying”. I don’t know about you, but most of the time my prayers aren’t that eloquent, and they are often muddled by whatever emotion I’m feeling in that moment of prayer, but my prayers are never-the-less a truth. They are what I feel in my heart, what I need help with, what I want to say to God. I have sung many different worship songs over the years and it never fails to amaze me how suddenly a song I’ve heard and sung a hundred times before with no effect will suddenly hit me right in the gut and grab me in a way I never thought it would. And this is what I’m trying to stumble my way towards.

    Maybe, just maybe, it’s worth arguing that sometimes songs are written with specific people/situations in mind. God knows all of us intimately. He created us and He love us. He knows what we feel and he knows how best to reach each of us. The way God speaks to me is probably different to how He would speak to you, because He knows what interests you and is valuable to you, is different to me. So maybe it’s not so much as case of a ‘bad worship song’ but one that isn’t designed to speak to you? (though, I think the ‘Sainsbury’s’ song is just bad…)

    My reasoning for this isn’t just based on my own experience, but from an observation I’ve had the past few weeks in Church. Like you, I’m not the biggest fan of the Children’s songs on a Sunday morning (just look at my face during the practice!), however, I do my best to praise God while I sing, and I try to make sure that my heart is in the right place even in our practices. Yet, when it comes to singing those songs in the actual service, I don’t need to think at all about making that song about worshiping God because I’m filled with such happiness and gladness that it all happens naturally. What causes the change? It’s looking out into the congregation and seeing two particular little girls who dance and sing with all their might when those songs are played. Those songs aren’t written for me. Those songs are written for those two little girls who enjoy them, and who worship their Lord with every fibre of their being when they hear them, and how amazing is that? How amazing is it that the same God who created the world, who created you and me, might also take the time to give us wonderful gifts like a particular song, or a book, or a sunset, or anything else that He knows would fill our hearts with joy, just to show He loves us. And that He would do that on top of the already undeserved gift of forgiveness. To say it blows my mind is an understatement.

    I don’t know if that’s an answer to any of your questions or not, or if it even makes sense outside of my own little mind! I don’t even know if it is right, but it’s just what occurred to me.

    I know there was more I had thought of to say, but it’s late and I’ve forgotten it for the moment, so I’m going to leave it there for now. If my other points come back to me then I shall post them and let you know 🙂

    Speak soon,
    Ruth

    • Eruntane says:

      Just to say for the benefit of anyone who’s following these discussions that the video you’ve linked to is definitely worth watching all the way through. Not surprising it ended up on the cutting-room floor – I don’t think Dawkins wants his viewers to know that Christians can be this rational!

      I’m a huge fan of Alister McGrath’s writing, but he is a theologian rather than a creative writer, so it’s maybe not fair to measure his work against the kind of stuff Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins produce. (It wouldn’t be fair to them either!)

      Jo

      • Ruth says:

        Hi Jo,

        You’re completely right about McGrath being a theologian rather than a creative writer, and I should have mentioned that above but simply forgot! He was recommended to me by a friend who is studying Theology and Applied Youth Work and she said that a lot of her course reading is written by him. I guess when I first read Gavin’s post, and particularly the part about authors failing to develop their writing past the superficial, I thought that is more where McGrath’s writing would fit (from what I’d been told about him).

        I’m glad the video is worth watching – I might need to watch it in stages, but I’m certainly going to make an effort to see all of it based on your recommendation 🙂

        Ruth

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