What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us about Church Music Styles

As my church moves toward merging its two divergently styled worship services, a few people are wringing their hands over how we can combine the hymns of the early service–they actually don’t sing very many hymns now, but don’t tell anybody–with the cutting-edge nature of the later service–which isn’t really that cutting edge.

People have probably fretted about church music since Bach was “contemporary” and people in the pews pined away for Gregorian chant. I recall a devout old woman from my former church who declared that “guitars aren’t sacred,” unaware that people in a previous age had said the same about the organ she played.

As we consider this, let’s look at John Everett Millais’ famous painting, “Christ in the House of His Parents.” (Click the image for a much larger view.)

What does this painting have to do with church music? Consider what Charles Dickens had to say about the composition:

In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.

What Dickens missed or simply ignored was the symbolism and thought behind this painting. Yes, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” had received a poke in the hand. Interesting, the position of that wound, isn’t it? And the nails seen over both shoulders–are they coincidental?

The Mary of the painting, while not an idealized woman, can scarcely be called “horrible in her ugliness” nor does her neck seem unnaturally positioned.

In allowing his vocabulary to play havoc with the reality of the painting, Dickens ignored the dove perched above Jesus’ head, the slightly older boy (John the Baptist?) bringing (baptismal?) water to the scene, and the blessing-like position of Jesus’ wounded hand.

What Mr. Dickens should have said was simply, “This painting is not my cup of tea.” What worshippers, faced with changing music styles, should say is, “That’s not exactly my cup of tea.” Such a judgment is perfectly acceptable. The reality, of course, is that we can learn to worship in many styles if we focus not on the means of the worship (or the style of the painting) but on the object of the worship, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” who grew up to carry the sins of the world onto a Roman cross.

Whether guitars are sacred or not, if they sing about Christ and him crucified, they sing truth.

A Briggs and Stratton Sabbath

A couple of weeks ago, I went outside during the evening to mow my grass. I really didn’t want to mow the grass–who ever does?–but I knew that it needed to be done. The temperature on that evening was mild for summer in Kansas City and the next several days promised the sort of blast-furnace peaks that June and July have delivered this year. Clearly, I needed to lace up my grimy shoes and drag the mower out.

But here’s the deal. That coolish evening was a Sunday. Sure, I’d done all of my Sunday obligations–gone to church, served in the children’s ministry, spent time with my family, all that–but I still couldn’t help remaining completely aware of doing non-essential work on the Lord’s Day. After all:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. –Exodus 20:8-11

That’s the fourth commandment, the longest of the ten. Jesus never got accused of murder or idolatry, but he was hit with accusations of violating the Sabbath right and left. It’s true that this commandment was the only one of the ten not reaffirmed in the New Testament, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I was pushing my mower back and forth on Sunday when I could have done it easily enough–although with more sweat–on Monday or Tuesday.

Back in Exodus 16, we encounter God’s message regarding the Sabbath via the provision of manna. You get a single ration every day except Friday when you can take a double ration to last you through Saturday. The message was clear: Trust God.

Shouldn’t I have trusted God better with my lawn mowing? Couldn’t I have trusted him to see me through mowing in the beastly heat on Monday?

This isn’t really just a question about the lawn or even about the Lord’s Day. Instead, it’s a question about trusting God to give me enough of everything in the time (or money or skill or whatever) allowed. I don’t think it was strictly an ecological thing that led God to declare the sabbatical year every seven years in Leviticus 25:4:

But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard.

Instead, he wanted the Israelites to do something harder than working, which was not working. He wanted them to realize that even though they hadn’t done the agricultural work that had served them (hopefully) so well in the preceding six years, the land would still produce sufficient crops to support them.

I’d like to spend some time developing this idea of trusting God in the time and resources allotted. I think it will lead into some surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

Weighed in the Balance and Found Wandering

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them is for their salvation.  I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Since they are ignorant of the righteousness of God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. —Romans 10:1-3

A friend of mine has been struggling for quite some time with a religious rift within his home. While he is a diligent, Bible-believing Christian, his wife is . . . how should I say it? She’s out in left field. More specifically, she’s managed to get herself connected with a sect that “majors on the minors.” These people think it is super important that REAL Christians worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. They insist on calling Jesus Yeshua and keeping some of the Jewish holidays.

I realize that someone could make a case for Saturday worship, and I know people who pray in the name of Yeshua and observe Passover. To my mind there’s nothing at all wrong with those things, but when we make one or more of those things the litmus test for True Believerhood, then I think we’re doing the exact sort of thing that Paul lamented the Jews of his day doing.

You don’t have to look around the Christian world very far to find examples of this sort of thing. My Church of Christ friends decline to have instrumental music in their churches (which is certainly their right), but they tend to make that practice a dividing line. Some Pentecostal friends insist that one absolutely must be baptized in the name of Jesus–and only in the name of Jesus–for a baptism to count. Do they honestly believe that Jesus suffered and died on the cross for me and then will leave me high and dry because Pastor C. baptized me with the wrong words way back when?

But lest I get too full of myself, too sure of my own rightness, I have to confess that I take a dim view of churches that baptize infants. I’m pretty confident that infant baptism is not scriptural, but is God going to reject a Jesus-believing Episcopal? And along the same lines, what of baptism by immersion? That’s the scriptural pattern, but if you believe in your heart and confess with your tongue, is God going to throw you into Purgatory because you were sprinkled?

I’m pretty sure that my friend’s wife is walking down the wrong road, but I’m also sure that the God of Creation will indulge some error on the part of those who believe. My prayer is that this woman, and those with whom she worships, will actually make that connection.