Begbie on Worship & Sentimentality

The weather man says a cool front is coming in today. Only 96 degrees high, he promised. It's a temporary break in our long, oppressive run of triple digits. The swimming pool is our refuge.
Congrats to the Celtics. That's some pretty happy dudes up in Boston. I 'm also watching MSNBC's video recap of Tiger's US Open win. I've never watched a golf video recap. Now I'm cheering along with the rest of the fanatics.
I do feel a little sorry for Rocco Mediate, the little train that couldn't. Will there really be a next time for him? But I give him points for colorful name. It sounds like a very fine cartographical term.
I woke this morning thinking about why I keep a blog. Two reasons came to mind. One, it's a way for my future children to see what their father was on about in the first few years of the 21st century; since they're not getting to witness it firsthand.
Two, I use it as a writing discipline. Something's better than nothing, I figure, and fiddling around is better than dreaming. It keeps me from getting dumb.
Arts & Religion
I've just read Begbie's chapter on "Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts" in The Beauty of God. One thing I appreciate about Begbie's writing, as I do equally of Frank Burch Brown's for that matter, or NT Wright's, is his pastoral kindness. He doesn't shy from calling a turd by its right name: a turd--whether an idea or a behavior. But he's never mean-spirited. Nor does he fall into the trap that I so often encounter with academics. They imagine they're preaching the gospel to the laity "out there in readership land" without actually demonstrating any love for them. It easily comes out as harsh generalizing ("All those charismatics do X. Every Presbyterian does Y. Evangelicals, the lot of them, do Z"). Or I get that feeling I'm being condescended to: You stupid non-enlightened people.

If you've done pastoral care for any length of time, with regular folks who rarely have their act consistently together, theological or otherwise, but still need as much divinely inspired TLC as anybody, you learn to let compassion replace frustration. It's something many of us really do have to learn. It's not like lay folks want to be theological idiots, or spiritually dysfunctional. They/we don't mind an occasional prophetic one-two punch, but don't talk down.

Anyhoo, I've reproduced a portion of his essay where he addresses the more praise-chorusy habits of recent church history. It's stuff I think regular peeps should pay attention to, not just worship pastors. A couple comments on his thoughts.

First, I wonder if the term "aesthetic hyper-simplicity" might work better than simply "aesthetic simplicity" to describe these kind of devotional love songs. It strikes me that there's plenty of material in the Psalms that's aesthetically simple. Nothing wrong with that, I reckon. I don't find the Taize music all that complex, but it still satisfies aesthetically while also nourishing the soul. What I do dislike is the hyper-simplicity, and the incessant hyper-simplicity that I frequently encounter in this kind of musical culture.

Second, if every church or musical culture suffers from excess, which can only be remedied as we hold up mirrors to each other to see where we've confused or exaggerated gospel and culture, then we charismatics do well humbly to consider Bebgie's admonishments. I wonder what he'd write of the other end of the cultural spectrum, the more mind-oriented musical culture. Wonderrrring.

As one who has worshiped in a moderate charismatic church for some time and wrestled with the heart-mind, simple-complex tug-a-war of music, I feel encouraged, not discouraged, by Begbie's words. I feel emboldened to love my kin more--while also wishing we did sing many more hymns.

I also wish I could put Matt Redman, David Crowder, the Hillsong mates and Chris Tomlin in a room with Begbie, FB Brown, John Witvliet, and Marva Dawn, and say: "You're not coming out until you've written a whole new album of songs and hymns that apply the best of your musical intuitions and theological convictions. Rock out! Feed the church!"
Or has this already happened?

"Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts": A daily meditation from JSB, the newly minted Tarheel

Over the last thirty years or so in many churches we have witnessed a burgeoning of a certain kind of devotional song, often directed to the risen Jesus: a direct and unadorned expression of love, with music that is metrically regular, harmonically warm and reassuring, easily accessible and singable. It would be disingenuous to seek to exclude these songs from worship on the grounds of their aesthetic simplicity.

The New Testament witnesses to the joy of an intimate union with Christ, and most Christian traditions have quite properly found room in their worship for such “plain” heartfelt adoration. However, questions have to be asked if it is assumed that this kind of song exhausts the possibilities of “singing to Jesus,” or if these sentiments are isolated from other dimensions of relation to God.

Devotion to Jesus, after all, entails being changed into his likeness by the Spirit—a costly and painful process. It certainly involves discovering the embrace of Jesus’ Father, Abba, but this is the Father we are called obey as we are loved by him, the Father who judges us just because he loves us, and the Father who at salvation’s critical hour was sensed as devastatingly distant by his only Son. If we ignore this wider Trinitarian field we are too easily left with a Jesuology that has no room for Jesus as the incarnate Son of the Father, even less room for the wide range of the Spirit’s ministries and encourages us to tug Jesus into the vortex of our self-defined (emotional) need.

Rowan Williams, while very sympathetic to much contemporary song writing, writes about the dangers of what he calls “sentimental solipsism,” where the erotic metaphors of medieval and Counter Reformation piety reappear but without the theological checks and balances of those older traditions, where “Jesus as object of loving devotion can slip into Jesus as fantasy partner in a dream of emotional fulfillment.”

This should not be taken as a wholesale attack on this or that style of worship (in fact, most traditions have fallen into these traps at some stage). But our three strands of sentimentality are not that hard to see in this genre, whatever precise form it takes. In a quite proper concern for intimacy with God through Jesus, reality can be misrepresented (the first strand)—if sin is evaded and trivialized, God is shorn of his freedom and disruptive judgment and taken hostage to my emotional requirements.

Most of us have attended services where we were invited to experience through music what Colin Gunton used to call “compulsory joy”—perhaps authentic for some on this or that occasion, but often disturbingly out of touch with what some have to endure in a world so obviously far from its final joy, the very world Christ cam to redeem. Most have known services where music has been deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-by-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.

Emotional self-indulgence (the second strand) I have said enough about already. The failure to take appropriate costly action (the third strand) is sadly all too evident among those of us who sing most loudly. Comforting and immediately reassuring music may have its place, but something is amiss if this is the only function music is called upon to exercise. The widespread dependence on musical clich├ęs in the church (especially those drawn from film music) should also give us pause for thought, even if there is a quite proper place for borrowing familiar idioms.

When Amos attacked music (Amos 5:23-24) it was because it was too “easy,” blinding God’s people to the downtrodden in their midst. We would do well to have Bonhoeffer’s words (uttered in the midst of a racist regime) ringing in our ears: “only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”


Wes said…
Great post. There are so many brilliant insights in that little portion I don't even know where to start. I'm buying this book now.

While I don't think that you meant by your "wishing we sang more hymns" comment that you think all hymns are the opposite of what Begbie is describing, I think it is worth pointing out that many of the songs today considered to be "old hymns" (most in any evangelical hymnal published after 1880 or so) are every bit as guilty of precisely the sentimentality he describes. I've heard people pit hymns and choruses against each other, calling choruses "me-centered" and "sentimental", and then turn around and sing gospel songs from the 2nd Great Awakening that are exactly that (I'll resist the temptation to name a few).

Also, I wish with you that the Church could be fed with more music that reflects all that God is and the reality of our human experience rather than a sentimentalized one.
Wes, whaddup. I'm guessing you're the "Wes" that Phaedra knew back in the UNT college days. Que onda, amigo!

Yes, I recommend the book. Go IVP. Go Wheaton editor dudes.

I appreciate your caution. I didn't mean a false opposition between hymns and "choruses." Lazy writing there. I meant, at one level, for greater musical complexity, that I really do wish the hymn ledger at Hope Chapel were larger; at another level, for doctrinal richness. I'd really like to sing all of salvation history. If I remember best what I sing, then it'd be great to have the whole canon of Scripture in my head. I've told them as much over the years.

It is surprising when you actually start paying attention how many hymns reflect the same devotional sentiment that contemporary "praise songs" do. But perhaps not so surprising.

Franciscan spirituality began with its own rendition of full-throttled "charismatic love." Bernard of Clairvaux made much ado about mystical love in his 86 sermons on Song of Songs. Charles Wesley made the "heart" a central theme in his hymnody.

Some hymns are artistically good, some bad. Some are devotionally and doctrinally rich, some weak. Some leave you musically dizzy. Some leave the heart completely absent. I guess it's simply human nature--and our variegated personalities--at work. Ecclesia semper reformanda.

What the church needs, to state the very obvious, is good music. The form and the style are secondary, though never arbitrary, matters. They're secondary in the sense that they must serve a) the specific thought, feeling, or action that the people desire to express, b) the purpose for which the people have gathered, and c) the context--culturaly and historically--in which they've gathered.

But enough. Others have written excellent books on the matter. They're worth reading.

Hope all is well south of the border.

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