Hymns

2 hymnals

A big part of my job at church revolves around the praise band. I have a fun time playing with the band (on keys, bass, banjo, whatever), but I confess that praise music really isn’t my bag. There are very few contemporary Christian artists I would choose to listen to in my spare time just because I enjoy their music. (Lauren Daigle is one exception that springs to mind, and maybe I Am They, but these are definitely exceptions.) I grew up the son of a Methodist organist and the grandson of a Lutheran organist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I prefer the traditional hymns. Beyond personal preference, though, I’ve always been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why I find the old hymns so much more meaningful than contemporary worship choruses. Undeniably, our somewhat dated church hymnal is filled with archaic language and non-PC lyrics. And musically, most of the well-known hymns are at least at formulaic and repetitive as the songs I could hear on Sirius’s “The Message” channel.

This article from Christian Century magazine (November 16, 2010) comes as close as anything I’ve read to voicing my feelings. “I understand the value of praise choruses for those who find them more accessible than hymns. But I doubt that anyone will be singing ‘Our God Is an Awesome God’ on a deathbed. The problem isn’t…the lyrics, but its lack of gravitas.” – M. Craig Barnes

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-10/closing-hymns

 

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No One Is Alone

Psalm 139

“You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight

I look behind me and you’re there,
Then up ahead and you’re there too—

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?”
The Message

The words of the Psalmist are calming, but also cautionary. On the one hand, it’s nice to know I am not alone. What greater comfort could there possibly be than to be assured that an all-powerful God is by my side? It’s like having the ultimate bodyguard!

But there is a catch. This constant companion knows me and my secrets, even the ones I would rather remain unknown. No, there is nowhere I can go to avoid the Lord. I am never out of the Lord’s sight. Those little things I think will not be noticed? They are noticed! Little transgressions I think I can get away with—I can’t.

I am reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, Into the Woods. As has been the case with me and many Sondheim shows, I didn’t care for Into the Woods the first time I saw it. (I’m talking about the stage production, not the movie, which I still haven’t seen.) But I knew from experience that Sondheim sometimes requires repeated watching-listening-reading-thinking. You could easily see Into the Woods and come away with little more than, “Well, that was a fun retelling of some classic fairy tales!” That’s not wrong, but that’s also not all there is.

Take these lyrics:

“No one is alone
Truly
No one is alone”

Nice, right? Yes, but…

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.”

We are not alone, and that comes with a responsibility. Our words and actions act as guides to those around us, so we must be careful. No one is alone. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Children see. The Lord sees.

No one is alone. Be comforted, but also be careful.

Old Testament

Israel Conquers Ai (Joshua 8), wood engraving, published in 1877

There are those who agree with Ned Flanders that the Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament, and the New AND BETTER Testament. There are people who would like to do away with the Old Testament altogether. But even though some of it is rough going, the Old Testament is worth keeping. And since nearly ¾ of the Christian Bible is devoted to it, plenty of other people must have thought so too.

There is no question that the Old Testament has its difficulties, or rather WE have difficulties with parts of the Old Testament. There’s the violence, which is seemingly everywhere, but here is one sample: “With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21). The mind-numbing strings of names (1 Chronicles devotes NINE chapters to this). There are the bits which are morally questionable in every way (Judges 19). And there are long sections that are comically repetitious. Numbers 7 gives a detailed list of the offerings brought by the tribe of Judah to the newly anointed Tent of the Lord’s presence, then follows it up with lists of the offerings from each of the other eleven tribes…even though all twelve of the lists are identical!

And everyone who has attempted to wade through Leviticus knows that it is sheer torture.
BLOFELD: “So you have decided not to cooperate, Mr. Bond. Well, read Leviticus in its entirety!”
JAMES BOND: “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”

In spite of all this, we need to see the Old Testament as more than a lengthy introduction to the New Testament. The breadth and richness of the writing alone is staggering. The Bible has come down to us as a whole, and however messy the process of putting it all together most assuredly was, we need to accept it as a whole. It’s all there for a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When confronted with a passage that seems pointless or just plain yucky, don’t skip over it Ask yourself why it’s there. What role does it play in the work as a whole? Who put it there and why? I come back again and again to the questions posed by Peter Enns and Jared Byas in their podcast, The Bible for Normal People:
What is the Bible, and what do we do with it?

The Old Testament is full of treasure—start digging!

Bible Glutton

Good News Bible

I had a copy of The Children’s Bible as a kid. Every kid I knew had a copy of The Children’s Bible. It had all the good bits (and pictures!) without any of the controversial stuff. I thought of it as just another collection of bedtime stories.

I knew the Bible was a big deal. I went to Sunday school and church every week as far back as I can remember. The minister read a few tidbits of scripture as part of every service. There were copies of Good News for Modern Man in every pew. But even at church, we mostly got the good bits without the controversial stuff. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but sometime before I left high school I acquired a Living Bible (read letter, with concordance), and it was this Bible I decided I would read cover to cover, which I did.

Since then, I have read other Bibles cover to cover. My trustworthy RSV, The Message, most recently the Catholic Study Bible. Just this past week I started in on the massive CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha. I already have Robert Alter’s even more massive Hebrew Bible with Commentary on my Amazon wishlist. I guess I’m a Bible glutton.

Now simply reading the Bible cover to cover does not constitute Bible study. Digging into the Bible in depth is a worthwhile activity, and necessary if one is to even begin to truly understand this sprawling mess of a book. I should add here that simply memorizing select passages also does not count as Bible study. It might be an impressive parlor trick, and could potentially help on Jeopardy, but memorizing and understanding are not synonymous. People who can rattle off dozens, or even hundreds, of out of context Bible verses remind me of Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, in the movie Rain Man. Raymond is profoundly autistic. He has an astounding memory but no sense of what it is exactly he has memorized. When stressed, he recites Abbott & Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” comedy sketch word for word, over and over. People who quote Biblical passages with no knowledge of the context or meaning of those passages are like that.

I love the Bible. I love reading different versions of it. I find something new in it every time I dip into it. I love reading it, and I also love studying it—reading commentaries, footnotes and cross-references; listening to podcasts and speeches from Biblical scholars; discussing it with other Bible fanatics. Too many people who claim to base their faith on the Bible have only a superficial knowledge of the book. Treat it simplistically and you will miss the best parts. If you stay in the shallow end, you’ll never discover the riches in the deep end.

Crystal Clear Bible!

crystal clear bible

“Are you tired of ambiguity? Sick of long passages of meaningless genealogies and obsolete laws? Embarrassed by sex scenes?

“Well, fear no more! The new Crystal Clear Bible is here! All the answers you seek to life’s problems and today’s hot button issues can be found in easy to digest, tweetable chunks. No more contractions! No more room for interpretation! It’s all crystal clear! In less than 300 pages!

“Your favorite stories are included, minus the nasty bits. Distracting tangents have been eliminated. Problematic wording has been glossed over with feel-good aphorisms. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Job: Gone! Proverbs has been brought into alignment with current prosperity gospel thinking. Difficult foreign names have been Americanized because the Bible was written, after all, with the United States in mind.

“Take advantage of these helpful extras: Enjoy reading while you listen to your favorite contemporary Christian choruses using our handy praise tune concordance! Useful talking points are printed in red letters! Explanatory notes highlight allowable exceptions to the Ten Commandments. We have thoughtfully toned down Jesus’ anti-establishment rhetoric, and substituted family friendly quotes that we’re sure are what he actually meant to say.

“Buy now and receive a handy wallet card that puts the Bible’s main points at your fingertips. It’s all crystal clear!”
* * * * *
This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

Calling: Ministry? (shhh!)

Bibles 2

While I’ve experienced nothing as dramatic as a burning bush, a blinding light, or a voice from God, lately I have been feeling a most unexpected calling: to the ministry. There’s something I didn’t expect! Though I’ve long been interested in religion and theology, and fascinated by the Bible in all its sprawling messiness, an actual career in ministry has never been on my radar. So why am I now feeling the urge to go to seminary? I’m not sure I believe in God, and don’t even like people all that much!

Well, the first thing to recognize is that seminaries have evolved beyond what they were when I first attended college back in the primeval past. (I’m so old we had to run from dinosaurs on the way to school, dodging around pools of molten lava where the Earth’s crust was still cooling.) It used to be that if you wanted to be a Methodist preacher, you went to a Methodist seminary; if you wanted to be a Baptist preacher, you went to a Baptist seminary, etc. Seminaries were there to make preachers in whatever denomination they worked with. These days, seminaries (at least some of them) are much more academic and much more diverse. A seminary may welcome students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. This phenomenon was highlighted in a 2015 New York Times article called Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.

In my own case, after many years of avoiding church like the plague, I have oozed my way back in, first as a substitute choir accompanist, and now as an actual church employee. Though I initially looked on the whole project as “just another gig,” the experience has rekindled my earlier passion for theology. I’ve been enjoying a whole new crop of books, podcasts, and YouTube channels that prove “religious” and “intelligent” can be compatible terms. I’m absorbing—sometimes in agreement, sometimes not—the words of Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. And I’m wanting to dive deeper.

But seminary? At my age? Really?

At this point, everything about the endeavor feels like a long shot. Applying to school, being accepted, paying for it, juggling that along with job, family, and other commitments—these are all big hurdles. Not to mention navigating the many side-effects such a radical life change may bring. It feels, with only minor exaggeration, as dramatic as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” I keep thinking of how Scrooge’s acquaintances and family reacted to the new Scrooge with shock and disbelief.

It’s too soon to think about any of that. For now, I am still in a period of exploration and contemplation. There will be much private meditation and many conversations ahead.

Learning How Much I Have To Learn

I find it quite easy to become disgusted with the religious community. When I heard voices saying evolution is “just a theory” or that climate change is “fake news,” I want to shake my head in disbelief. How can people be so dumb? Often, the loudest voices saying those things come from the evangelical Christian community. Since I was raised in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, albeit a frequently skeptical one, this is upsetting to me.

What a relief it was just last year when I discovered Christian Century magazine. (A side perk was discovering that this magazine traces its roots to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa!) Christian Century has been around for many decades, but it had always managed to elude my orbit until I stumbled across an Atlantic article by Bianca Bosker about an app called WeCroak. Intrigued, I turned to the internet to read more and was led to a similar article, this one by Matt Fitzgerald and appearing in Christian Century.

Bingo! It’s like this is the magazine I’ve always wanted to read. Christian Century’s tagline is “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” I not only subscribed, but I’ve been voraciously pouring through back issues online. Perhaps the thing I like most about it is how stupid it makes me feel. I mean that in a good way. It’s nice to know that I don’t need to check my brain at the door to be a Christian. Reading Christian Century, checking out books recommended within its pages, and following up on the authors I’ve discovered has introduced me to a whole community of intelligent people who all share an interest in religion as a faith, an academic subject, and a way of life.

Here is a short list of people whose work I have been devouring and admiring:

  • M. Craig Barnes
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Walter Brueggemann
  • Rachel Held Evans
  • Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Robert Alter
  • Will Willimon
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Richard Rohr
  • N. T. Wright
  • Shane Claiborne

I could make this list a lot longer, but you get the idea. Also, here are three podcasts I’ve been enjoying:

There are many other great resources out there for people who want to explore their faith in more depth. I have found my own beliefs enriched by immersing myself in the fellowship of the many people who have so much to teach me. I feel like this is my first day of school. It’s nice to realize how much there is to learn.