Remembering the Sniff

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I am fond of saying that God is perfect, but not a perfectionist. Related to this, with imitation of God in mind, is my conviction that the Church today needs a lot more puritans, and a lot fewer purists. And, if that were not difficult enough, we have to do it while consistently raising our standards.

Americans are incorrigible in their conviction that if one’s good, two’s better. Is it still broken? Give it another whack. Don’t force it. Get a bigger hammer.

The temptation is to point to verses that commend wholeheartedness — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all the rest. Our zeal is to be unflagging, right? Right, but this does not mean that zeal has to be a narrow gauge train, going one direction only, and the tracks real close together. Loving God with all your mind should allow your mind to go in more directions than north by northwest only, all other directions being sin. Love God with all your mind, in every direction.

Purists kill the thing they want to promote. They make it unattainable for everybody, all while demanding that everybody drop everything, and do whatever it is. Lewis and Sayers both describe how the humanist fierce ones in defense of Latin killed Latin. Puritan over-reach in the time of Cromwell contributed to the blowback that was the Restoration. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

Many years ago, when I was in college I read Watership Down, and mentioned it approvingly to an English professor of mine. He dismissed it with a sniff. Now I don’t know, from this distance, if that book was really any good. I don’t remember that, but I do remember the sniff.

There are many examples of this tendency, but let me use the issue of music to illustrate what we are up against. Anybody familiar with the ministry here in Moscow knows that several decades ago, with regard to the music we use in worship, we walked away from the contemporary treacle. And I knew what we were walking away from — I had been the songleader in the church, guitar and all, and like Guitar George in The Sultans of Swing, I knew all the chords.

But at the same time, I made a point of not walking away from the music in the rest of my life. In doing this, it was not a refusal to surrender something to Jesus. It was a desire to prevent our musical reformation in the church from becoming “righteous over much” (Ecc. 7:16). Why destroy yourself? And so as I write this, my playlist is the in the D’s, and the next four songs are Dust My Broom by Elmore James, Dumas Walker by the Kentucky Headhunters, Drown in My Own Tears by Ray Charles, and Dreaming My Dreams With You by Waylon Jennings. Since we began the musical reformation in our the church, I have made a point of putting together a band (the Jenny Geddes band) once or twice a year to play a bunch of stuff out in public that some people might not have anticipated. Now somebody might point to this as an obstinate and tenacious refusal to let Skynyrd go, but what it actually has been is an obstinate refusal to let the crucial and necessary work of raising musical standards be seen as the province of purists.

I have done this for many years locally, because at the time it was a local point I was making. But now the influence of what we are doing musically has expanded, and more folks are pointing to what we sing during worship, for those who want to come along, I want them to walk with us in two respects. I want them to see that we need to recover music that is appropriate for the worship of Almighty God, and to do so in a way that emphasizes and honors God’s songbook, the Psalms. We want to continue to raise the standard, further up and further in, and no looking back. But second, I would ask everyone who comes with us in this to do it without becoming highbrow purists — the kind of thing sure to provoke a revolt from regular folks after about ten years of it. This process of lightening up may be aided, jumping over to the B’s in my playlist, by listening to and enjoying Bread & Water by Ryan Bingham, Build a Levee by Natalie Merchant, and Boulder to Birmingham by Emmy Lou Harris.

When we walked away from the treacle, a lot of people were attracted to what we were doing because they were sick of their diet of musical cotton candy. It was a great relief to them. But this is a road that people can walk on in both directions. I grew up in a church that sang Holy, Holy, Holy like it was a cast iron ball and chain, and I can still remember the exhilaration and relief I felt the first time I heard twelve-string guitars in a worship service. This is a fallen world, and glorious music can get old just like crappy music can. Takes longer, but it still happens. Everything gets old, but that doesn’t mean we have to try to invent special aging creams. Balance.

This is (in part) what was behind the Logos Benefit Concert (DVD coming soon, incidentally), and what was behind the recent call for musicians to submit contemporary settings for the lyrics and melodies of Reformation psalms.

There are many aspects to this, and many more things I could say, but one of the central things I want to provide for my grandchildren is a musical inheritance that they won’t have to grow restive under. I want us to live up to what we have already attained, and not just on Sunday.



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