Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Death and Collective Guilt

August 13, 2021

I don’t consider myself a real aficionado of Texas-style (or maybe just more traditional American) folk music. A bit too twangy. But playing pool in bars with juke boxes for most of my life you pick up a taste for a little bit of everything, and all that absorbed country music made me a bit more open to the twang than I otherwise might be. I discovered Nancy Griffith in the mid-90’s hot on the heels of the success of her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Twang notwithstanding, I fell in love with Griffith’s story-telling. Songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway are still some of my favorite songs for the powerful stories they evoke in the small space of a song. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert in the early 90’s and it was a wonderful experience to hear that clear voice in person.

She died today and that’s sad, as all deaths are.

I went back to listen to some of her songs this evening. They still bring a smile to my face or tug the heart strings in a way few other songs or artists do.

By chance I happened upon another of my favorite songs of hers, It’s a Hard Life. I still love the song but what caught my ear, in the midst of the rising racial tensions in our country was the last verse, a sort of confession on Griffith’s part that:

I am guilty I am war I am the root of all evil

She believed the words and the visions and promises of some great people like Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite and Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed their promises that change could come and was coming. And decades later, realizing those visions had not materialized the way she had assumed they would, for everyone rather than just specific demographics, she holds herself accountable. Though she’s not at the wheel of control, by implication she is guilty for those who are at the wheel of control, either by her support of them or her failure to stop them.

It’s a hard confession to hear after her stinging examples of prejudice that occurs in every culture and can take myriad forms. She confesses guilt that this still exists and she has personally failed to prevent it.

In the way this kind of corporate confession is currently being wielded or demanded in our country, it’s erroneous. It is misplaced. It assumes that we individually are capable of preventing people from reaching power or using power if they are not worthy of it or misuse it or fail to use it to full capacity. And it assumes at a deeper level that these things – prejudice and racism of all stripes – can actually be defeated and destroyed by our own efforts. If we just have the right leaders. The right policies. The right educational systems. The right corporate policies.

Unfortunately for Griffith and you and I and those who struggle under the oppression of real prejudice and racism, this isn’t true. Not that we don’t work towards it. Not that we can’t make improvements. But to remove these things is beyond our control. It is not in us to do so. Or more accurately, like Griffith’s confession, the sin we would stand against is present within us as well. Perhaps not in the same forms or to the same degrees, but there all the same.

And in that sense the corporate confession is appropriate. We all share in the common affliction and malady of sin. None of us is capable of removing it from ourselves let alone another person. And so we continue to struggle with sins as old as humanity. Some people are constantly amazed that a particular program or regimen failed to root out a particular sin. That is a sinful error as well, though a well intentioned one. Anything designed by a broken and sinful person is going to turn out in one way or another broken and sinful and inadequate as well.

Griffith’s bleak confession would be the last statement in her life and every life if there were not a deeper, greater hope than our own visionaries and programs. Thank God, there is.

There is only one hope for the defeat and removal of sin. One hope promised long ago in a primal garden, and one hope accomplished 2000 years ago on a cross by a man who claimed he was more than a great teacher or a great moral model, an inspirational speaker or a worker of wonders, but in fact the very Son of God. Who promised that in his voluntary and innocent death and burial, the sin within us would be overcome. All we had to do was believe this was true and who He was and what He accomplished. And for an anchor for that faith and trust He asserted He would rise from the dead after three days.

That hope and promise remain today. I pray that Griffith shared in that hope. That her disappointment in herself and others was overcome by a hope and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray it was ultimately that hope that inspired her to write and to sing and to become an inspiring voice to others and future generations.

Because I’d love to hear that clear voice in person again someday when she can sing of victory instead of defeat.

Filling in Gaps

June 18, 2020

Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?

Remember how she said that we would meet again

Some sunny day?

Vera, Vera, what has become of you?

Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

Pink Floyd, “Vera” from The Wall

I remember being blown away by the power of Pink Floyd’s The Wall when I discovered it in high school. The disturbing power of that album, the bitter disappointment and rage at the society that arose in Britain from the ashes of World War II were all heady historical commentary set to music. And as often as I’ve listened to this album – or most any album or book or movie – there are references and allusions I miss or never bother to track down.

Vera Lynn is one of them. I assumed at some level she might be a cultural/historical figure from the British World War II era, maybe a film star. But now I know she was a singer. A singer who was never able (or allowed) to move beyond her cultural mooring of wartime Britain, and who has now died at a very respectable age of 103.

Another brick in the wall of understanding.

Highly Illogical

March 27, 2020

Sometimes it’s the little things that are inspiring and surprising.

As a casual Trekkie and somewhat more than casual admirer of J.R.R. Tolkien, I found a curious blending of the two a few years ago after the Star Trek movie reboot.  Namely, a very delightful if slightly corny Audi commercial starring the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and his reboot alter-ego, Zachary Quinto.  It’s a cute commercial but I never understood the song Nimoy was singing.  I thought it was just a nonsensical sort of thing to compare his outdatedness with Quinto’s more with-it persona and car.

Now I find out  there’s a history to what Nimoy is singing about Bilbo Baggins.  A history that goes all the way back to 1967 when Nimoy, in addition to starring in a new series called Star Trek, was releasing musical albums.  Two at this point.  And he sang this original song called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins on one of his albums, and then lip-synced it for a campy TV show during the summer of 1967.

Mind blown.  I respect the Audi commercial even more now for their attention to detail – even a detail many would miss!


Skynet Jams

April 19, 2019

In all the worries about robots and artificial intelligence (AI), one element we might have neglected to worry about – what will our robot overlords listen to as they attempt to eradicate humanity?  I mean, if humans use our musical jams to get us through workouts and other rigorous things, why not AI?

So here is a death-metal streaming YouTube channel.  The music is created non-stop by an online neural network.  Seems kinda appropriate for a bunch of robot warriors, doesn’t it?


Interpreting Authority

April 9, 2019

We had our monthly gathering of pastors in our denomination today.  We come together spanning a stretch of territory just shy of 100 miles in length, and we were at the far southern terminus of our area today.  The study we started briefly on had to do with proper pastoral authority.  What authority does the pastor have (and not have), and where does he derive it?  It’s a theological discussion with a rich tradition, but not one that I’ve had to have many conversations with lay people about.

But it coincided with some other thoughts on authority and how we interpret it.

Two out of the last three weeks I have worshiped in places that sing the song “Our God”  by Chris Tomlin.  It’s got a catchy rhythm and, while being somewhat vague on details, is a fun song to sing.  But both times it was used, the bridge got me thinking:

And if our God is for us then who could ever stop us

And if our God is with us then what could stand against.

Now these words are true, but I wondered how the people singing and swaying along to them interpreted them.  In both settings there was no further explanation of this very strong claims.  And barring interpretations, people are prone to filling in their own explanations.

The words  could easily be interpreted to mean that as followers of Christ we can’t suffer any setbacks, any failures, any disappointments, let alone any meaningful persecution or violation of the rights and privileges which we – as American Christians in particular – have come to enjoy and expect.

God is indeed for us and with us, and as such we are indeed conquerors in Christ.  But we need to remember that Christ conquered through his death, and his command to his followers was not to go out and dominate culture and society and politics but rather to pick up their crosses and follow him.  To expect the kind of suffering, even, that Jesus experienced and, perhaps, to even be killed for our confidence and faith in him.

That is a very real, very powerful victory indeed!  Satan cannot stand against us in any eternal sense.   Those  who cling to Christ may lose everything else – health, wealth, prestige, honor in the eyes of the world, even our lives – but we inherit so much vastly more.  It is a promise that has held Christians faithful on their way to the gallows or the shallow graves, in the face of guns and knives and fists and fire.

But is that how people today hear it?  And what if they seem to be stopped in their lives?  What if their jobs disappear or that promotion never materializes?  What if their family life is a struggle or they deal with the very real threat of sickness and disease?  Does this song support and encourage them to trust completely in Jesus and endure all things and all losses?   Or does this song leave them without a means of explaining their struggles?  Does it set up a false hope or point them to  the only true hope and definition of victory in Christ?

Only time will tell, I suppose.  But the rates at which people seem to be leaving their faith behind for the none category in survey after survey, the rate at which participation in worship continues to decline, I have to wonder if these kinds of songs – which can and should be so powerful and comforting when provided the proper interpretation – are leading people to a shallow, straw-man sort of faith in a god-djinni who grants wishes and offers protection rather than dies and rises again for them?

Those are the conversations I’d rather be having with my colleagues.  How do we equip our people to face real suffering and loss rather than letting their shallow roots wither and die in the blistering sun of an enemy?  Defending and explicating the proper role and use of pastoral  authority requires, after all, a congregation of people to explain it to and live  it out with.  That might require some more diligent preaching and teaching rather than letting them define their pop hooks by the world’s standards rather than God’s.


Vinyl Redux

November 20, 2017

In my garage are four large boxes of LPs (that stands for long playing, FYI).  Records.  Vinyl.  Black gold.  Cue The Beverly Hillbillies music.  I’ve been carting them around for almost 15 years now.  They’ve survived (I hope) a basement in St. Louis and several moves in California, after years sitting mostly neglected in our home.  I can’t bear to part with them.  They might be worth something!  But I haven’t owned a turntable in nearly 15 years either, and the idea of becoming linked in some way with a USB-turntable hipster dumpster diving through record piles is appalling.

But this?  This is actually tempting.  I have no doubt that audiophiles will decry it as woefully inadequate, but it’s innovative as heck!

Wednesday Worship – Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning

January 11, 2017

We’re still in the liturgical season of Epiphany, and here’s another traditional Epiphany hymn.  The text of the hymn was composed by Reginald Heber around 1811.  Heber was a gifted linguist and eventually the second Anglican Bishop of Calcutta.  He died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in 1826.

As an Epiphany hymn, it concentrates on the revealed divinity of Jesus and the application of this reality to our lives.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thy aid;

Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

The first verse makes much use of words dealing with light (Brightest, stars, morning, dawn, Star, horizon) because light is a prevalent theme in Epiphany (taking after John 1:1-5, no doubt).  Jesus is light incarnate – not in a vague way but as the light which dispels the darkness of sin and death and Satan.  This is our very real need – we cannot dispel the darkness ourselves because we are part of it.  The star in Matthew 2 is the means by which the magi are drawn to Jesus to give him praise and honor, and we likewise seek to be drawn to this baby who is more than a baby, more than illuminated by a star, but the source and word by which that very star of revelation came into existence.

Cold on his cradle the dew drops are shining / Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;

Angels adore him in slumber reclining / Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.

The second verse poetically describes the two natures of Jesus – true man and yet true God.  According to his humanity He is here spoken of in humble and very physical terms that emphasize his humanity and participation fully in the creation He speaks into being.  He is affected by temperature and climate (cold, dew) and He is first found in the lowly condition of a stable surrounded by ‘dumb’ beasts.  Yet He is divine, and so adored by angels for who He also is – the Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.

Shall we not yield him, in costly devotion / Fragrance of Edom and off’rings divine,

Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean / Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?

How should we worship the Incarnate Son of God?  Certainly there is no gift too valuable for him.  Edom is an interesting reference here.  Edom is the alternate name of Esau, Jacob’s older brother and a source of constant difficult for God’s people.  Judgment is decreed frequently against Edom in the prophets, and Isaiah 34:9 talks about the land being reduced to nothing – streams of tar and soil of sulfur.  Yet even from such odorous things a pleasing fragrance might be obtained, perhaps specifically as an offering to the Son of God.  All of creation is the Lord’s, and those aspects we value most highly because of their difficulty to obtain are suitable offerings to the Incarnate Son of God.

Vainly we offer each amble oblation / Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

Richer by far is the heart’s adoration / Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Scripture passages such as Psalm 51:17 or Mark 12:33 no doubt inform this stanza.  We bring sacrifices to God the Son because it is right to do so, because He is deserving of them – not because they are of use or value to him, or in order to sway his power in our favor.  The gifts of the magi are beautiful but ultimately useless to the magi without corresponding faith in the baby as the divine Son of God who saves us from our sins.  Such faith sees in the Christ child the proper object of worship and adoration, correctly (though imperfectly) seeing our own poor plight in darkness (stanza 1).

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;

Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer lay.

The song ends as it begins, with the request that as the magi were guided by the star, our faith and hope in Christ might be guided in faith by the Word of God in Scripture, the Word that leads us to the cradle, the cross, the empty tomb, into a posture of waiting and anticipation for our Lord’s return.

Wednesday Worship – Songs of Thankfulness and Praise

January 4, 2017

Wednesday is normally the day when I coordinate the details for worship on Sunday.  I’ve already begun musing on the readings for the day with my Reading Ramblings from Saturday night/Sunday morning.  Guided by the liturgical calendar (usually), I begin the process of thinking first about the readings and what they say, and then what they say together, combined.  This begins to lead me in a direction for a sermon based from the readings.  Next comes the process of selecting music that is in keeping with the above elements.

I’ve decided to start including some information about at least one of the songs or hymns that we’ll be using for Sunday worship.  An examination of the song along with biographical details.  As important as music is to worship (and theology in general), I’d personally like to learn a bit more about these songs and thought I’d share it here.  Hopefully it will be of interest to y’all as well.  I undertake this as someone with no formal musical training, so if I say something incorrectly, feel free to correct me!

This is Epiphany Sunday coming up, which emphasizes the mystery that the human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is also divine, the Son of Mary is also the Son of God.  It’s a counterpart to Christmas, which celebrates the mystery of the divine taking on human flesh.  I’m blessed to have a faithful parishioner who assists in selecting more contemporary, praise-style songs for worship, while I select the hymns.  Our worship is a fairly liturgical format, but we utilize different types of music.

I selected two hymns for this Sunday (since it’s not a Communion Sunday) – both are associated with the Epiphany season in terms of their theological content.  The first is The People that in Darkness Sat and the second is Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.  I’ll talk about the second one today.

Songs of Thankfulness and Praise was penned around 1862 by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth.  Christopher was a prolific hymnist, and composed hymns around the liturgical calendar.  The key term used repeatedly in this hymn is manifest.  The definition of this word as an adjective is to make readily apparent or easily seen.  I consider it as closely linked with revelation and revealing – something that was obscured or hidden is now revealed and disclosed, soas to be readily apparent.  This is the primary theme of Epiphany – the deity of Jesus of Nazareth revealed in conjunction with particular events in the Biblical narrative of his life – the adoration of the magi, his baptism, and the Transfiguration.   The theme of the hymn has to do with how the divinity of Jesus is disclosed to us, made manifest in the events of his life.

Songs of thankfulness and praise, /  Jesus, Lord to thee we raise,

Manifested by the star / To the sages from afar,

Branch of royal David’s stem / In thy birth at Bethlehem:

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

This is a song of praise, just one of many that are appropriate and proper to Jesus, who is our Lord.  Why is He our Lord, and not simply another obscure historical figure?  Because of the manifestation of his identity in the star the magi followed, based on the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17.  Jesus further fulfills prophecy about a ruler from the line of David (Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15) who will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  Jesus is not acknowledged as Lord apart from how he manifests his identity as the Messiah, the prophesied offspring of David.

Manifest at Jordan’s stream, / Prophet, Priest and King Supreme;

And at Cana wedding guest / In Thy Godhead manifest;

Manifest in pow’r divine, / Changing water into wine;

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth continues to elucidate the moments that demonstrate Jesus’ divinity and worthiness to be called Lord.  First he refers to Jesus’ baptism and the divine declaration and manifestation of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13-17, 28:18; Deuteronomy 18:15; Hebrews 7:26-27; John 18:36-37).  This is then linked to his first miracle, his first demonstration of power at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-11).

Manifest in making whole / Palsied limbs and fainting soul; 

Manifest in valiant fight, / Quelling all the devil’s might;

Manifest in gracious will, / Ever bringing good from ill;

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth moves on in the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ miracles, prophesied beforehand (Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 4:1-11, 11:4-5, 8:26, 8:13).

Sun and moon shall darkened be, / Stars shall fall, the heav’ns shall flee; 

Christ will then like lightning shine, / All will see his glorious sign;

All will then the trumpet hear, / All will see the Judge appear;

Thou by all wilt be confessed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth now moves from the events of Christ’s incarnation to events associated with his return in glory.  He draws on both prophetic Old Testament sources (Joel  2:10, 31; Isaiah 13:10, 34:4) as well as New Testament quotes (Matthew 24:27; 29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 17:24, 21:25-27; Acts 17:31; Philippians 2:11; Revelation 1:7) which highlight Jesus’ role on that day as judge, identifying those who have placed their faith in him.

Grant us grace to see Thee, Lord, / Present in Thy Holy Word – 

Grace to imitate Thee now / And be pure, as pure art Thou; 

That we might become like Thee, / At Thy great epiphany

And may praise Thee, ever blest, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth concludes with the application.  As Lutherans we tend to get a little nervous here, never wanting anyone to confuse the process of sanctification with what Christ has accomplished in justification, and never wanting sanctification to eclipse justification.  But sanctification has a worthy place in hymnody topics as well.  We are called to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:2) in anticipation and consistency with who we will be revealed to be, as children of God on the day of our Lord’s return (1John 3:2).

So there you have it.  For another analysis of the song and the themes contained, here is a good, short article.  It takes issue with more modern tweakings of this hymn to be more politically correct – and I concur with the author completely on this subject!




Christian Music Redux

July 14, 2016

Thanks to Lois for sharing this essay with me, since I recently blogged about Christian music.

I was surprised to learn of the huge growth in the Christian music marketshare, but I certainly can appreciate the author’s interpretation of why – it gives hope and encouragement.  I worry that marginal Christians will be led to think they understand their faith and are engaged in it even if they don’t go to church because they listen to Christian music.  From the perspective of providing hope and encouragement that music may indeed be very helpful, but understanding the context of that hope and encouragement is even more important.  The Christian faith isn’t simply about making me feel good no matter what – it is very specific Good News that centers on the person and work of Jesus the Christ as the Son of God.  Feeling good is not the same as salvation.  Feeling encouraged is not the same thing as justification.

I like the author’s openness to hearing a broader cross-section of theological music. Because if the world is full of judgment, then we need to know how to deal with it other than just tuning it out.  Christianity is all about judgment, but certainly not on the terms or by the rules the world works with.

As with most things, peppy Christian music has a place and a function.  So long as we don’t pretend that it is representative of Christian theology in a full sense, I’m glad that people are enjoying it, and pray that some people are drawn to learn more about this Jesus guy that so many people are singing about and to.  That’s really encouraging, really hopeful, truly Good News.

Hear, Hear

June 6, 2016

Or Sing, Sing, but that sounded more like a prison.

This article is an interesting – if undoubtedly not thorough – examination of Christian pop music.  It rings anecdotally true to me, but I also don’t listen to Christian pop music very much, if ever.

I wonder if there isn’t a much-needed aspect to this optimism in Christian music, considering the darkness that otherwise seems to dominate media.  I can’t check the weather web site without being informed of some dramatic weather development somewhere in the world, seeking to draw me in deeper to the web site (and advertising) with ominous warnings.  The news is certainly predominantly negative.  Cynicism is a predominant theme all over the place.  Maybe it’s reasonable for Christian music to strike a different chord, to insist on the joy that is found in Christ.

Admittedly, this will leave Christians in the midst of struggles with fewer songs that deal with their situations, and that’s deeply problematic.  Traditional hymnody, with an emphasis on teaching, could appeal to people in all situations.  The call to worship God could be positively recognized and responded to – even through tears.  One of the most popular hymns for memorial services I conduct is How Great Thou Art.  A song that calls us to acknowledge the greatness and glory and beauty of God and his creation, sung in the midst of personal loss and grief.  It seems ironic.

But the song doesn’t focus on the singer’s emotional state.  It calls on the singer to think about other times and situations where, surrounded by the grandeur of God’s handiwork, we can’t help but burst into praise.  The song doesn’t ask for me to praise God because today is a particularly wonderful day or because I’m feeling happy, but rather accesses me at a different level, a different place, enabling me to sing through tears and proclaim the greatness of God even in the midst of sorrow.  I’ve watched people sing this song with all their heart, tears on their faces.  They have no desire – or ability – to dance and bop around in that moment.  They are broken in the face of death and the reminder of their own mortality, but they sing praise to God and draw on the confidence of his greatness to bear their sorrow. The hymn doesn’t expect them to be happy; the hymn expects that regardless of their emotional state, they can praise God.

Christian pop-music may be better in terms of lifting spirits, or functioning as the soundtrack to a good day.  But it may not have the depth necessary to sustain someone in a time of loss and grief.  Admittedly, Christian pop may make no pretenses towards this.  But there has to be a catalog of music that we can draw on to get us through those times without compromising or fabricating our emotions.  This is what the psalms do.  This is what great hymnody does.  Maybe that’s not what Christian pop wants to do, and therefore it shouldn’t be blamed for a shortcoming it never intended to accomplish.  Maybe both can work together, providing a more comprehensive playlist for the Christian life.