Archives For Jonathan Edwards

WilcoI recently saw Wilco play at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s fascinating to hear the way other people respond to music that has become meaningful to me over the years. I typically listen to Wilco through headphones, so my experience with their music has been fairly individualized.

I’m not sure what type of response I was expecting, but when the band played “Sunken Treasure” and front man Jeff Tweedy sang the line “music is my savior,” I was surprised when crowd went nuts. A lyric that I had always taken with a grain of salt apparently meant a lot to this crowd of 15,000.

For years now Wilco has been my second favorite band. I love Jeff Tweedy’s approach to songwriting. He strikes me as a deep thinker, someone who is in touch with his emotions, but not in an angry, unsettled type of way (or not typically anyway). I often find a metaphor or turn of phrase in a Wilco song that expresses something profound about the human experience. This makes them quietly compelling.

Jeff TweedyAnd I am constantly impressed with their musical creativity. Wilco has a solid grounding in classic rock and straightforward folk music, but this has never suppressed their creativity. The band has said that they first write basic songs, then they dismantle them and explore creative ways to reassemble them. This gives their songs a feeling of stability, yet there is always an intriguing sense of depth even in the music itself.

Add to this the reality that Wilco has been making great music for nearly two decades. Not many bands can claim that type of prolonged creativity.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear cheers when Tweedy sang “music is my savior.” I’ve always taken that line to mean that music was an important outlet during some rough times in his life. But I have made two significant realizations on the basis of the lyric itself and the response it received at that concert.

First, I think this shows the power of music. Wilco knows well the effect that music can have, and their expression of this truth resonates with a lot of people. Something about music reaches deeper within us than words or logic can go.

Jonathan EdwardsThe puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards recognized this when he said:

“The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”[1]

That music has a unique power is something we recognize intuitively when we are moved by a song. Thousands of people cheering to Wilco’s lyric affirms that this is something we all know to be true.

But this experience also confirms that music can easily become an idol. This is something we must constantly be guarding ourselves against. God’s good gifts are easily distorted and misused. We gladly accept these gifts and then use them as replacements for the God who gave them to us.

Music is indeed powerful, but when we are willing to go so far as to say that music is our savior, then we are allowing God’s good gift to take on an idolatrous role in our lives. And the fact that thousands of people were ready to scream their affirmation of this lyric shows that we are asking our music to do more than it is capable of doing. Music is good, but it is not God. It is helpful, and it may well be a part of the healing process, but it is not the Healer.

Ultimately, music’s power comes from the God who gifted it to us. At its best, music will point us toward the Savior. But when music itself becomes our savior, then our idolatry is exposed, and we must turn from a god that cannot save to the only true Savior.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005) 242.

Jonathan Edwards wearing a mini-scarf

Christians love their heroes. We always have. Whether it’s Moses, Paul, Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Francis Chan, or Preston Sprinkle (one of my personal favorites)—we love hearing about these heroes of the faith and being challenged by their zeal, knowledge, and unbreakable faith.

I’m not sure how big of a business Christian biography really is, but I’ve gone through a few biography stages in the last decade, and I know many others have as well. There is so much that is good and helpful about examining the lives of the godly men and women who have gone before us, but I don’t think I need to sell any of you on the validity of Christian biographies (If I’m way off on that, by the way, leave a comment and I’ll write a post to that effect). What I want to do here is offer a few cautions about reading biographies.

 

Don’t forget that even heroes are human. Some biographies are excellent at presenting heroes of the faith realistically. In other words, they present a hero’s weaknesses along with his strengths. This is incredibly healthy. Some biographies read more like hagiographies (writings about saints). They show all of the hero’s strengths and make him seem perfect. St. Francis of Assisi was worthy of imitation in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is John Piper. So while we should look up to these great Christians, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view them as superhuman. Nothing is gained by viewing a historical figure as better than he or she really was.

 

Don’t read biographies moralistically. There are moral lessons to be learned by reading Christian biographies, but we still shouldn’t approach biographies moralistically. I have often heard the sentiment (whether expressed explicitly or implicitly) that if we could only be as disciplined as Jonathan Edwards, if we could only be as bold as Martin Luther, if we could only be as prayerful as Hudson Taylor, then we would see revival.

Let’s imitate the discipline, boldness, and prayerfulness of such Christians, but we would be foolish to suppose that adopting a few character traits moralistically is going to change anything. True change comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Don’t assume that you can discipline yourself into being the next Apostle Paul.

Hebrews 11 is commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” Here the author of Hebrews holds up a number of faithful figures from the Old Testament for our consideration. But we must be careful to notice that it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.

 

Don’t forget that these heroes are dead. Okay, not all of the heroes I listed above are dead. But my point is that these men and women have all been used by God at unique times and in unique settings. You shouldn’t do exactly what St. Francis of Assisi did, because God called him to a specific type of ministry in the midst of a specific historical context. The same is true for all of the others, from Jonathan Edwards to Francis Chan. The value of Christian biography is lost if we merely imitate what our heroes did. Our task is to pursue the same God that our heroes pursued with the same passion and faith with which our heroes pursued him, and then to let the Spirit direct us and empower us for exactly what He wants to do in and through us in our unique historical and cultural setting.

Theology for Today

Mark Beuving —  February 12, 2011 — Leave a comment

Reading the theologians of the past can be a rich experience. We have a lot to learn from those who have gone before us. Yet like most good things, there is a potential danger.

As we read godly men like Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Augustine, John Owen, and many others, we are drawn to the force and brilliance of their arguments. But we seldom consider the arguments and worldviews that they were addressing. Does it matter? Absolutely.

We admire their argumentation, we stand in awe of the impact they had on their generations, and naturally, we want to have the same sort of impact. So we imitate their argumentation and emphasize what they emphasized. But when we don’t consider what they were arguing against, we fail to recognize that we may not be called to answer the same questions.

What I mean is this. The great theologians of the past were answering questions. But the answers they gave would not have been helpful if they were not responses to actual questions—regardless of how brilliant those answers were. An ingenious explanation of the law of gravity is not a good answer to how to bake bread.

So before we adopt the great arguments of the past, we must first consider which questions we have been called to answer.

Martin Luther said it like this:

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point” (Cited by Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There).

In 1863, a soldier fighting in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania would have been considered a hero. But a soldier fighting the same way in the same location today would not be a hero—he would be foolish and irrelevant.

Should we read old theologians? Of course! As I said, we have much to learn from them. But we cannot afford to uncritically adopt their battles as our own. If we want to impact the world as they did then we must know the Bible well and bring that knowledge to bear on the questions and erroneous thinking of the world in which live. Sometimes we will find that we are addressing the same issues that our spiritual forefathers faced. But often we will find that we are asked to answer different questions, or questions that have been significantly reframed.

Not only did the Bible answer the questions that our heroes from church history were asking, it also answers the questions that we face today. Our job is to bring Scripture to bear on our unique historical situation.

How do we know what questions need to be answered today? We will never know until we walk out the front door and start conversations with our neighbors. Only then will we find that the Bible has answers for real life—it always has, and it always will.