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I’ll explain what I don’t mean by that in a minute; first let share my experience with worship leading.

I was a junior in high school when I asked a friend to teach me to play guitar, partially out of boredom. He graciously taught me a few Nirvana songs and a few basic chords (in that order). From there, I started trying to bang out a few worship songs in an effort to train my rookie fingers to go where they were supposed to. This means that my intense efforts at training my fingers to play the guitar coincided with my first personal experiences with playing “worship music.”

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall having been passionate about my faith prior to this point. I repeatedly sang basic songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” as I laboriously positioned my fingers for each of the four chords the song requires. I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in those months, but it was A LOT. As my muscle memory kicked in and I developed the ability to switch chords without prolonged pauses, the song itself began affecting me. I can still remember the night that I got down onto my knees as I continued to strum the guitar and sing that song directly to the Lord. It was the first meaningful worship experience I can remember.

Why? Why should forcing my fingers to move into unnatural positions bring me into a deeper expression of praise? I am only recently realizing that it has a lot to do with the embodiment that playing an instrument requires. Though we think of singing praise songs to God as a spiritual experience (and it is), it would be impossible without the body. When we sing to God we are using our brains, mouths, vocal cords, and lungs in addition to our souls. The praise may be spiritual, but it works in conjunction with the physical, embodied functions of the bodies God created. All of this deepens the impact. Just as the physical practice of taking communion deepens the impact of remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death—chewing the bread, tasting the wine—so the physical involvement of singing deepens the truths we express when we praise God. It involves the heart as well as the mind.

So adding another dimension to that embodiment by involving the arms and fingers sinks these truths into our hearts. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” became ingrained—not just in my mind, but also in my muscle memory. I believe that the authenticity of worship that came from this experience stems in large part from the involvement of my body. Prior to this, my worship consisted of words. Now more of my body was involved, and my desires were being shaped at a deeper level.

Presumably, all worship leaders have experienced something similar. They went through the initial process of training their bodies to engage with music at a deeper level. And week after week they participate in embodied practices that express worship to God. These processes help the truth to sink in, and the worship deepens.

I know that many worship leaders become calloused to the truths they sing about. Through over-familiarity a song can lose its potency, and a worship leader can become numb to the powerful truths embedded in the song. Nevertheless, the solution to this is not stepping away from embodied practices that can help the truth to sink it, but instead to continue to pursue creative ways of expressing truth so that it has the greatest possible impact.

When I titled this post “Why Worship Leaders Are More Spiritual,” the full thought I’m getting at is not that worship leaders are more spiritual than other people, as if singing into a microphone were a sign of spirituality. What I am actually suggesting is something more along these lines: worship leaders are more spiritual than they used to be. The idea is that worship leaders are engaging in a powerful means of expressing truth, and that truth is bound to sink in more deeply as it involves more of the person.

God created us as whole beings, and we are made to glorify him with every integrated aspect of our being. Worship is more than contemplating spiritual concepts. Worship is meant to seep into our bones, to transform our hearts, to come to expression through our fingers, our voices, our footsteps, through every gesture and pursuit. Learning the guitar deepened my faith. You may have no inclination to follow my lead in this, but all around you are embodied practices that can deepen your faith. Pick a handful and pursue them to the glory of God.

Erosion

Chris Hay —  August 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about the beauty of God’s creation as it was unwrapped in some of our National Parks; how God’s creative work is just a hint, a sampling of His majesty and glory; and how all of His creation should cause us to fall on our faces in worship. These stunning, breathtaking vistas are just a drop in the vast ocean of God’s stunning beauty and breathtaking character.

Las Vegas StripOn this same trip, we took the time to drive The Strip in Las Vegas. Never been there before, and since we were driving right through Vegas anyway, we decided to check it out. Yes, it was impressive. Man certainly has been given great skill in designing and constructing impressive monuments to himself, such as the sphinx and the Eiffel Tower in miniature; of course the originals, also built by man, are even more impressive!

It was the very next day that we drove through Zion National Park, and I couldn’t help comparing God’s handiwork there with man’s handiwork in Las Vegas. Both impressive, both beautiful, both worthy of taking lots of pictures, both attract thousands of people. But I was overwhelmed with the contrasts. The Strip requires constant and expensive maintenance to keep it looking beautiful. If it were neglected for just a few years, it would deteriorate into rubble. Whereas God’s work has been sitting there just fine for millennia, arguably getting more stunning as the centuries pass. The natural massifs and vistas lifted my soul in worship to the Creator God; The Strip was a jarring reminder of man’s greed and emptiness.

Grand CanyonIt struck me that much of God’s creative beauty is from erosion. The sandstone monoliths of Capitol Reef have been scoured clean of dirt and debris, revealing their impressive beauty. The Grand Canyon and all its stark beauty exist solely because of erosion. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are the result of the caressing of the wind and water over the centuries. The wind and the rain are brushes in the Artist’s fingers; they are hammer and chisel in the Sculptor’s hands.

Those same tools, wind and rain and erosion, would desecrate man’s works. Buildings would rust, windows would break, landscaping would run wild or die from lack of water. Erosion is the enemy of man’s work; it is the agent of God’s work.

Bryce Canyon HoodoosThe parallels in the life of a Christ-follower should be clear. The winds and rains of life are what make us more beautiful and Christ-like. Erosion is God’s normal and required process to form beauty and character in us. We can desperately fight to keep ourselves ‘maintained’ and looking good as we stroll down the road of life, or we can accept and even embrace God’s erosion of ourselves to make us a stunning reflection of Him.

If we try living with Self as our god, the tools of erosion will only make us more bitter, filled with rust and deterioration that oozes onto those around us. And that makes us ugly. So we need to allow the erosion of life to make us more beautiful, more stunning. We can’t let it deteriorate our spirit and make us ugly. I would much rather be a National Park than the Vegas Strip.

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the seriesBook of the Month

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

In a sense, only God creates. Only God can “stand” in the “middle” of complete nothingness and call as-yet-non-existent things into being. We call this creation ex nihilo: “out of nothing.”

So we can truly look at every aspect of our world and say, “God made this.” But as every parent knows, it gets more complicated when your children start asking, “Did God make cars?” “Did he make your computer?” My fumbling answers to these questions have gone something like, “Well, yes. He created the metal that the car is made out of, and he created the minds of the people who put the car together.”

Only this week have I begun to realize the true genius of God in this respect. It was John Frame who helped me think this through as he wrote about human choices: How is that we go through life making decisions based on our desires, and yet the Bible is still able to insist that God ordains all that comes to pass? It’s an old question, and I wasn’t expecting any fresh insight.

But Frame began talking about “our participation in God’s creativity.” He says,

“Our choices among possible alternatives image the choices that God himself has made in eternity, and they serve as the means by which God actualizes and rejects possibilities in history.”[1]

When we go about creating in God’s world, we are making choices, and in doing so we are acting like God, following his image, which he placed within us. But it’s bigger than us simply making choices. It’s that as we create in this world, God is creating. He is working through us to create. Our acts of creation are both ours and his—we are making the creative decisions, and in doing so we are playing out God’s perfect eternal plan.

The Creation of Adam

All of this is guaranteed to hurt your brain if you try to comprehend it entirely, and the mere raising of this topic sends people scurrying for their copies of Attacking Arminians or Countering Calvinists. (If those aren’t books yet, they should be.)

But this is why Paul is able to thank God for the Philippians’ partnership in ministry. The Philippians chose to work together with Paul; Paul saw their involvement as the working out of God’s plan. This is why Joseph was able to point to the same event (being sold into slavery) as both the evil intention of his brothers and the good plan of God (Gen. 50:20).

Now let me cut the urge to argue short: I’m not interested here in settling the fee will vs. predestination debate. What I find fascinating here are the implications for human creativity. Ultimately, we create because God made us in his image.

“Much about the divine image is mysterious, because God himself is mysterious. But among other things, there does seem to be something in us analogous to God’s creativity…”[2]

Dorothy Sayers looked at the context of the “image of God” passage in Genesis 1:26 and says that the only thing we know about God leading up to this is that he is the Creator. All he’s done in Genesis 1:1–25 is create. So when God sets out to make a being “like himself,” he seems to be creating another creator. Sayers identifies this as at least a part of what the image of God means.

Here’s why it matters. God has a plan for history. God formed this world with his words and his fingers, and he has not stopped speaking, he has not stopped shaping. Everything—everything!—from the largest imperial expansion to the slightest shifting of the smallest grain of dust is seen by God, known by God, captured in the interest and attention of God.

And as we step out into this world to create, to shape, to dream, God is stepping out to shape the world through us. When Steve Jobs created the iPhone, God was shaping his world through Jobs. (The same goes for whoever invented the Android, everyone calm down.) When I hug my daughters, God is wrapping his arms around them. When I work, play, sing, sleep, and eat, God is working out his plan for this world. My choices (at least, so my experience tells me), his plan.

(As an aside, let me just acknowledge that this gets much darker when we ask where God is in the evil moments. For example, where is God when an innocent man is wrongly accused, beaten, and murdered? But according to the Bible, God is still working out his plan in those types of events: Acts 2:23, 4:27–28.)

So be assured, God is still working in this world. And he is all of the time working through us. We are his image-bearers, his mini-creators, his world-shapers. Let’s be careful to shape his world in ways that fit his mission and highlight his glory. And let’s be confident that in all of it, God’s plan is being worked out, drawing ever closer to its good and glorious culmination. God has never taken his hands off of his world. He continues to work in it in deeply mysterious and incomprehensible ways. And he also continues to work in our creative decisions, shaping his world through our hands and feet and mouths.

 

 

[1] John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013) 837.

[2] Ibid., 836.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I spoke at the Audio Feed Festival in Champaign, Illinois. I was invited last year and was excited to speak again this year. The fact thatAudioFeed-8 I agreed to come back shows what I think about the festival. Yeah, it pretty much rocks.

The festival is only two years old, but its roots have a rich history. AudioFeed was born out of the widely popular Cornerstone Music Festival started by the Jesus People USA in 1984. In 2012, Cornerstone announced that this would be the last year of the festival, and AudioFeed said lets keep rocking! So for the last two years AudioFeed has been hosting a music festival where dozens of bands and several speakers come together to enjoy God’s gifts of creativity lavishly poured out on his image bearers.

Yes, it’s a “Christian” music festival—but don’t think CMA. This stuff is different. And in my mind, refreshing.

Artists from several musical genres rock out (or scream out or rap out, or whatever) in a way that might not seem “Christian”—that is, you won’t hear most of these bands on K-Love. The Homeless Gospel Choir is a one-man band who writes satirical songs about nationalistic Christianity. Justin Driggers has tats and dreads and sings emotionally dark, yet real and redemptive, country songs. Timbre shreds on a harp. Sean Michel, whose signature beard puts Phil Robertson to shame, lights

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

up the stage with deafening guitar riffs, powerful lyrics, and rich sermons between his songs. My Epic, Listener, Flatfoot 56, and several other popular bands drew some loyal crowds. Noah James—a largely unknown Christian artist—sent my heart to heaven and my knees to the cross as he left me spiritually dazed after proclaiming the gospel through some of the best “Christian” music I’ve ever heard. His song “Heaven Is Far” punched through my chest, ripped out my heart, and slammed it at the foot of the cross. Joy collided with frustration over the fact that Noah will probably never break through the political and consumer-driven walls of CMA, which is unfortunate for those who love theology, the cross, and unpredictable music.

Although I rarely visited the “Black Sheep” stage, I could hear the screaming from across the fairgrounds, which freaked out my daughter at first. One band screamed out David Crowder’s “How He Loves Us” just after the lead singer gave his testimony about how Christ rescued his soul from hell. I can’t say I love the hard-core screamo stuff, but I can appreciate someone screaming for Jesus. If we meditated on what we’ve been rescued from, I think we’d probably scream too. Grave Robber, a “horror punk” band, showers the audience with blood launched

Sean Michel ripping it up--Arkansas style

Sean Michel ripping it up–Arkansas style

from cannons in celebration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But it’s not real blood, which means Grave Robber is tamer than the freak show Moses and Aaron put on in Exodus 24. That was real blood.

AudioFeed is one of those places you’d never bring your grandma—though I saw quite a few grey-haired enthusiasts dancing around with ear plugs—but you’d do well to bring your non-churched, de-churched, or overly churched neighbor. Why? Because the music is simply outstanding. It’s fresh. It’s real. It’s unpredictable (blood from cannons, folks). And the musicians are real people who don’t think much of themselves. I don’t want to overly sanctify the musicians—they’re just as screwed up as you and I—but humility seemed to glow from these artists who don’t carry the stage with them when they finish playing. Casual conversations between rock stars and fans is a regular sight at AudioFeed. I met Peter Furler (former lead singer of the Newsboys) in passing, and when he saw me just seconds after his set, he remembered my name. Shane Claiborne, the keynote speaker, defies Christian fame by going out of his way to turn Christian celebriolatry on its head. He talks to people, looks them in the eye, remembers their name, and doesn’t ask to be put up in a hotel. He’d rather stay at the home of people in an effort to obey Jesus’s second greatest command. Shane is one of the most authentic, humble, passionate Christians I’ve ever met. What you read in his books is what you get in the flesh. And that’s pretty rare.

The thing that encouraged me the most was the intellect and passion among the participants. It’s a counter-cultural crowd, but you only become counter-cultural by thinking outside the box, asking hard questions, and not being satisfied by recycled answers. It’s not uncommon, as a speaker, to get questions about apocalyptic readings of Revelation, reader-response hermeneutics, or various theories of the atonement from a dude wearing black eye shadow and spikes. This is why I came back to AudioFeed this year. The festival reminds me that the kingdom of God is pushing forward through all types of people who live out their faith in nontraditional ways. And most of the people who attend this festival have a massive, cross-shaped heart for people. Yes, it’s true. Many of them have problems with patriotism, militarism, capitalism, suits and ties, combs, and the traditional evangelical church. But walk around and talk to them. Get to know their stories. Have a 5 minute conversation with a stranger and he’s likely to give you the shirt off his back. Even if you’re a suit-and-tie wearing CEO of a large company that served in Desert Storm. Disagreement doesn’t interrupt love.

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

At AudioFeed, everyone is accepted. Rainbow hair, painted faces, spiked Mohawks, and tattoo-less dorks from California (er, Idaho) wearing flip flops and a sun visor. If you want to wear a black trench coat on a hot July day. That’s cool. What matters is whether you love Jesus and people. You want to walk around hoisting a log on your shoulder, no one’s going to bat an eye as long as you don’t smack anyone with it. (These are all true scenes, by the way.) For one of my talks, I wore a black Harley Davidson shirt and I felt like people were thinking, “you don’t need to dress up here, bro. It’s AudioFeed.”

And this is why I love this festival. Jesus was all about the marginalized, and his followers would have raised a few eyebrows if they entered most of our churches today. Our New Testament was written by a terrorist named Saul, a slave named Luke, a treasonous extortionist named Matthew, and other marginalized ruffians with variegated shades of a shady past. But God loves people unloved by the

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn't give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn’t give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

religious elite. And God loves diversity. Middle class, white, suburban Christianity only reflects a small sliver of God’s image in the world. AudioFeed reminds us that we serve a beautifully complex and diverse God who loves all types of musical genres and doesn’t have a favorite hair-style. Suits and ties, khakis and blue blazers, boots and 10 gallon hats, black leather and trench coats—they’re all woven from a creation blessed and enjoyed by God.

AudioFeed: A festival that celebrates and magnifies our Triune God who defies singularity.

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