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Saturday
Jul172010

The value of contemporaneity

I think one of the things that makes a book really good is if it causes us to evaluate things.  I must admit to liking it when I'm reading a book, and I am thinking to myself, "Yes, that's exactly right!" or "I see exactly what you're saying."  The book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns was a book a lot like that for me.  But it was also a book where I was thinking, "Okay, I see the point, but ..." and I could hear objections that could be raised from another view.  But, in the end, the point caused me to evaluate what I think about certain things.  I think that is the mark of a good book.  There were a few occasions in reading Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns when I didn't agree as vigorously as on other points, but I could see how Gordon arrived at his conclusion.

One of the things I found most intriguing about this book, and which caused me the most pause for evaluation was the chapter called "Contemporaneity As Value."  Contemporaneity, as a value system prefers that which is new as opposed to that which is past.  The past is rather out of step, out of date, and not really worthy of attention.  Twenty-first century North America values contempraneity. 

Gordon provids some contributing factors to our love of the contemporary.  First, technology.  Technology naturally makes current modes of doing things seem obsolete, and not nearly as good.  When something new comes along, it is implicit that the old model is not as good.  Societies without the same level of technology as ours seem primitive.  Digital technology is even more of a contributing factor, beause it is image-driven.  Gordon points out that image-driven technology distances us from the past more than other forms of communication.  In looking at old photographs, with their faded colour and outdated modes of dress, we feel very removed from the past.  However, a piece of literature written from the same time as the photograph doesn't create the same kind of immediate distance.   Secondly, commercial concerns contribute to the love of contemporary.  The consumer culture is continually bringing forth new products; and not to make life easier, necessarily.  It is done for the value of making money.  The carrot used to encourage people to buy is that the product makes life easier.  Commercial forces, in their very existence, contribute to contemporaneity as a value system, because new equals "better," and we all want what is better.  Thirdly, a contributing factor is media.  The word "media" means more than news media, but that has become pretty much what we think of when someone says "media."  Strictly speaking, the word can refer to any number of ways of communicating.  However, news media has taken over what that means; and news is continually new.  Just think of CNN with its continual stream of updates running across the bottom of the screen.  There was a time when newspapers may have only published a few issues monthly, because any more than that was not necessary.  News has a lot of content that is just trivial.  If there are no natural disasters or military skirmishes in the Middle East to report, well, the latest foolhardy behaviour of some adolescent singing star becomes "news."   It has become the case that what makes something "news" is not its seriousness or its possible long term consequences, but rather its newness.

There were a few philosophical contributing factors which Gordon outlined, but I won't go into them here.  He talks about the contribution of Marxism (for Marx, the norm for society was change), progressivism, and historicism.  The point Gordon makes about historicism is worth an entire post of its own.  At any rate, our society has become a lover of the contemporary.  It isn't even that we hate the past; we just find it rather uninteresting, and not really "relevant" to where we are today.  Contemporaneity makes anything that is not current seem outdated, antiquated or foreign.  This is an important observation, because contemporaneity seems to be a criterion (if not THE criterion) employed in the selection of worship music.

Gordon states that to reject what is past is not consistent with Scripture.  He points out that in Scripture, we can observe an emphasis on passing down that which we know know.  Paul, the apostle, talks about passing down the Scriptures in I Corinthians 15:3:  "For I delivered to you as of first importance that which I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures."   Paul received the word, and he passed it down.  One only needs to read the Old Testament to see the repeated exhortations to remember what God had taught and the need to pass it to subsequent generations.  Gordon even goes so far as to say that anti-traditionalism is un-Christian.  You'll have to read the book to find out the specifics of that point.

I think a very significant point to be drawn from this discussion of contempraneity is that we need to evalute why we choose the worship music we do.  What are the reasons for picking a particular song?  Is contemporaneity a good criterion?  Should we abandon it all together?  If contemporaneity is a criterion, then hymnody will change continually, because every piece of music eventually becomes something from the past.  How can musical forms become passe?  Just because a musical form is not as popular, does that mean it is not suitable or even superior in the creation of hymns?  This whole discussion of contemporaneity as a value system really opened more questions in my mind.

I really did relate well to Gordon's views on tradition and its importance, although some of his views did cause me to feel a bit skeptical.  But, as I said, if those words make me evaluate what I belive about this whole issues, then that's a good consequence of reading this book.

Friday
Jul162010

Thoughts on applause

In D.A. Carson's A Call to Spiritual Reformation, he discusses Paul's prayer to the people in Thessalonica.  Carson points on that in 3:12-19, Paul not only thanks God for the growth he sees in the people, but he also tells the people that he thanks God for them.  Carson reminds us that it is a source of encouragement to someone if we tell that person that we are thankful to God for the growth we see in him.  And of course, there must be balance in that.  He comments further:

So what we need, then, is a prayer life that thanks God for the people of God, and then tells the people of God what we thank God for.

This obvious lesson may have a bearing on the rising incidence of applause in many Western churches.  Applause used to be unknown.  Then it came to be deployed after special music.  Now it is sometimes heard punctuating sermons.  This is, I think, a regressive step.  True, some might consider this to be a kind of cultural equivalent to a voiced "Amen!"  I take the point, and would not want to introduce new legalism by banning applause outright.  But the fundamental difference between "Amen!" and applause must be noted:  the "Amen!" s directed to God, even if it serves to encourage the person who is ministering, while applause in our culture signals approval of the performer.  God is left out, and the "performer" may the more easily be seduced into pride.  This is one of several ways by which the rules of the entertainment world have subtly slipped into corporate worship and are in danger of destroying it from within.

Of course, Carson's sentiments would be soundly objected to on many fronts.  Applause is not really seen as "harmful."  I am reminded, though, that while things may not be "harmful," they may not be helpful, either.

Wednesday
Jul142010

Warfield Wednesday

I'm reading from the volume "Biblical Doctrines" in the collected writings of B.B. Warfield.  The first doctrine he deals with is predestination.  He spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the fact that predestination is a biblical doctrine that did not just pop up in the New Testament.  It is in the Old Testament.  He talks about the emphasis in the Old Testament of divine choice:

In every aspect of it alike, it is the sovereignty of the Divine choice that is emphasized, - whether the reference be to the segregation of Israel as a nation to enjoy the earthly favour of God as a symbol of the true entrance into rest, or the choice of a remnant out of Israel to enter into that real communion with Him which was the joy of His saints, - of Enoch who walked with God (Gen. v.22), of Abraham who found in Him his exceeding great reward (Gen. xv. 1), or of David who saw no good beyond Him, and sought in Him alone his inheritance and his cup.  Later times may have enjoyed fuller knowledge of what the grace of God has in store for His saints - whether in this world or that which is to come; later times may have possessed a clearer apprehension of the distinction between the children of the flesh and the children of the promise:  but no later teaching has a stronger emphasis for the central fact that it is of the free grace of God alone that any enter in any degree into the participation of His favour.  The kingdom of God, according to the Old Testament, in every cirlcle of its meaning, is above and before all else a stone cut out of the mountain 'without hands' (Dan. ii. 34, 44, 45).

Tuesday
Jul132010

Pioneer Women With Brains

Anne Bradstreet and her family arrived in Salem, Massachussets harbour in 1630.  What they met when they arrived was not entirely encouraging.  The conditions were harsh and dirty.  The Bradstreet/Dudley contingent determined, along with others in their party, to settle elsewhere.  After initially selecting a location along the Charles River, the Bradstreets eventually settled in New Towne, present day Cambridge.  Others had moved to what is now present day Boston.  The times were difficult, and fraught with illness.  It seemed as if people died on a daily basis.  Despite the hardships, the Bradstreets managed to make it through.  It was at this time that  Anne met another woman of intellectual ability, Anne Hutchinson.

Hutchinson had known the Bradstreets in England, and she had also come to the colonies, and settled in Boston.  She, like Anne Bradstreet, had sat under the ministry of John Cotton during her time in England.  When Cotton went to Boston, Massachussets, Hutchinson and her family followed.  She was an influential and outspoken woman.  She acted as midwife to the young women of the colony and also led bible studies.  She was not shy about criticizing the (male dominated) leadership of the community.  At the time, there were increasing difficulties among the colonies, as leaders attempted to make the colony a pure religious state.  This only resulted in dictatorial style leadership and attempts to impose difficult rules and regulations.  The governor, John Winthorp, also a friend of the Bradstreets, was the object of criticism from many fronts.  A system was established whereby two representatives from each settlement were appointed and would have power to contribute to the governing.  Anne's father was one of those gentlemen.

Things for Anne Hutchinson took a bad turn when the pastor in Boston, John Cotton, was replaced by John Wilson.  Hutchinson was not silent about her objections to this man who was reputed to be harsh and moralistic.  She judged him to be preaching a covenant of works as opposed to a covenant of grace.  She went so far as to say that the only sound preachers in the colony were her brother-in-law John Wheelwright and John Cotton.  Her influence increased, no doubt by her willingness to say what many were likely only thinking.  Men soon began attending her bible studies and her views became more extreme, to the point where she began claiming to have direct revelations from God.  She was eventually ex-communicated.

Anne Bradstreet, an intellectual woman in her own right, watched these events, and while her reactions are not recorded, it would not have escaped her notice what happened to a woman who drew attention to herself.  There was another woman who had a similar experience.  This woman was Anne Hopkins.  She attempted to write books and was reputed to have lost her reason as a result.  She committed suicide by throwing herself down a well.  It was said by the governor:

If she had attended her household affairs and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper to men whose minds are stronger, she had kept her wits and might have improved them usefully and honourably in the place God had set her.

These situations must have caused Anne Bradstreet some anxiety, as her desire to write poetry continued to grow within her.  The excellent education she had received in England had inspired her literary desires, and when the family eventually moved from New Town to Ipswich in 1636, Bradstreet was able to draw on the intellectual encouragement of her pastor,  Nathaniel Ward.  Ward had quite a library of his own, and Anne was able to read his volumes.  Despite the way the situation with Anne Hutchinson had been handled, Anne Bradstreet received encouragement to begin writing verse.

Anne was not without her own hardships.  She, herself met with occasions of illness.  This is a poem reflecting on an illness she suffered:

In anguish of my heart replete with woes, 
And wasting pains, which best my body knows, 
In tossing slumbers on my wakeful bed, 
Bedrenched with tears that flowed from mournful head, 
Till nature had exhausted all her store, 
Then eyes lay dry, disabled to weep more; 
And looking up unto his throne on high, 
Who sendeth help to those in misery; 
He chased away those clouds and let me see 
My anchor cast i' th' vale with safety. 
He eased my soul of woe, my flesh of pain, 
and brought me to the shore from troubled main.

  For the next few Tuesdays, I will be sharing some of the book Anne Bradstreet, Pilgrim and Poet.

Monday
Jul122010

Kind of a mixed up day

 I woke up at 4:30 this morning, and by 5:00 (thanks to the sound of cats whining in and outside of the house) I still had not got back to sleep, so I got up.  Needless to say, I feel like it should be bed time by now.  I had a 15 minute power nap a while ago until the phone rang and I had to pick up my son from work. 

I have a blog post rolling around in my head with regard to Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, but sadly, it will have to roll around a while longer because it's my youngest's 16th birthday, so I must make chocolate mousse.  I thought I would share this with you.  I laughed a lot at this.