Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Mighty Cantata

Lutheran churches were celebrating Reformation Sunday this past weekend, and I was blessed to hear J. S. Bach’s eight-movement cantata based on Martin Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) the way Bach intended—in the context of a worship service.

The Neffs met up with their friends Mark and Nina Moring at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, for a splendid service of evening prayer complete with choir, orchestra, organ, and professional soloists.

In our time, Bach’s cantatas are usually performed as concert pieces, as if they were mini-oratorios, small-scale versions of Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But that is not at all what Bach had in mind. He wrote these pieces to be paired with sermons as musical expositions of Scripture.

Robin Leaver explained it all in issue 95 of Christian History and Biography: The Gospel According to J. S. Bach. In an article entitled “Sermons that Sing,” the Westminster Choir College musicologist described how this unique musical genre functioned in 18th-century Lutheran worship.

“These services were long,” writes Leaver, “lasting up to four hours—with a complex liturgical order based on Luther's evangelical reinterpretation of the traditional Mass.” (Fortunately, the service we attended on Reformation Sunday lasted just an hour and fifteen minutes.)

Leaver explains:

[T]he cantata was closely connected with both the reading of the Gospel and the sermon. The simple sequence was this:

Gospel, Nicene Creed, Cantata, Hymn, Sermon.

The portion from one of the Gospels appointed for that day was read. The choir responded to the Gospel, affirming the faith by singing the Nicene Creed in Latin. Then the choir and instrumentalists performed the cantata. The whole congregation responded by singing in German the hymn Wir glauben all' an einen Gott ("We all believe in one true God"), Luther's rhyming, metrical version of the Creed. After this second affirmation of faith came the sermon, a detailed exposition and application of the day's Gospel reading. The cantata therefore stood in the middle of a sequence that began with the Gospel reading and ended with the sermon. Like the sermon, the cantata was also an exposition and application of the Gospel of the day.

The cantata was thus a theological commentary on Scripture and even an exhortation to faith and perseverance. In the Ein’ feste Burg cantata we heard, God’s strength and sure victory are repeatedly invoked to urge the believer to be steadfast in fighting the devil.

The bass soloist sings:

Consider well, O child of God,
This love so mighty, which Jesus hath
In his own blood for thee now written;
By which he thee
For war opposing Satan’s host,
Opposing world and error,
Enlisted thee!
Yield not within thy spirit
To Satan and his viciousness!

The soprano (representing the Christian soul) then responds to God with this invitation:

Come in my heart’s abode,
Lord Jesus, my desiring!
Drive world and Satan out,
And let thine image find in me new glory!
Hence, prideful cloud of sin!

I’m sure the poetry is better in the original German, but you get the picture. This pattern of exhortation and faithful response repeats throughout the full range of Bach’s cantatas.

Leaver’s article gives examples from various Bach compositions of the many inventive ways he used both musical and literary techniques to drive home a gospel truth and evoke both the terror of God’s judgment and the comfort of his grace.

Bach’s—and Luther’s—message is ultimately about God’s triumph. As the libretto of Ein’ feste Burg tells us:

Who hath to Christ’s own bloodstained flag
In baptism sworn allegiance
Wins in spirit ever more.
All that which God has fathered
Is for victory intended.

* * *

Professor Leaver’s full article is available online, but only to ChristianHistory.net subscribers. You can sign up for a mere $12 a year (surely you can afford a paltry dollar a month).

Or you can order a print copy of Christian History & Biography issue 95 for $5.00 plus shipping and handling.

Listen to the first movement of J. S. Bach's Ein' feste Burg.

Read more!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Science, Sex, and Stars

Just over a week ago, TIME’s David Van Biema wrote about vampirologist Anne Rice’s latest book, which recounts her return to faith: Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Like every good evangelical, I love a conversion story.

Van Biema called the book “catnip for devout Christians” and offered this evaluation: “Rice's conversion is disorganized enough to sound real, her eagerness to embrace confession and discipleship is inspiring, and her arguments in a passage on ‘Christmas Christianity’ suggest Rice could rival C. S. Lewis as a popular apologist for the faith.”

One thing Rice said, however, sounded very unlike CSL.

Centuries ago the stars were sacred. A man could be burnt at the stake for declaring that the earth revolved around the sun...Now the Christian world holds the stars to be secular...Is it not possible for us to do with gender, sexuality and reproduction what was long ago done with the stars? To realize that...new sources of information on them may be as valid as the information given us long ago?

Now, unlike much of Rice’s mystery-laden account, that paragraph struck me as very modern—appealing to science to help us desacralize gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Once again, as it has done so often in the drama of modernity, science is called on to play the role of savior from intellectual and spiritual darkness.

It is certainly true that science has taught us some things about sex. If you read Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, you’ll find careful research that debunks earlier misbegotten understandings of how our bodies work. But how does that sort of thing desacralize sex?

Rice’s comment about the stars reminded me of an essay by Michael Ward in the January/February 2008 issue of Books & Culture. In “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” Ward writes of Lewis’s interest in astrology.

[T]he pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was a Christian model not despite, but because of, its acceptance of astrological influence. Lewis valued its astrological aspect not because he considered astrology to be literally true, but because astrology represented a spiritual reading of materiality.

“A spiritual reading of materiality” is precisely what Anne Rice seems to lack. Sexuality and stars are whatever science can describe them to be. Here’s more of Michael Ward on CSL:

Since the Copernician revolution, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Readers of Narnia will remember an exchange in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of." Because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.

How ironic it is that Anne Rice seems to be succumbing to modernity even as she returns to Christianity. As an author of vampire novels, Rice is no stranger to mystery and otherness. Nothing archetypal should be alien to her. Maleness and femaleness have long resisted being reduced to reproductive mechanics, no matter how precisely Masters and Johnson could articulate the exquisite engineering of human sexuality. Someone with Rice’s romanticism should not be blind to that fact.

But these days, sexuality has been the victim not only of scientism but of legal reductionism. Just two days after Van Biema posted his comments on Anne Rice, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck down state law that provided gay couples with all the legal privileges and protections of marriage, while preserving that term for heterosexual unions.

In the court’s opinion, the modernist myth of progress trumped old-fashioned sensibilities: “Our conventional understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection.” Where Rice called on Science, the Connecticut justices invoked Progress.

Indeed, it was one of the Court’s dissenting voices that offered an appeal to science, or at least “biology”:

Justice Peter T. Zarella … argued that the state marriage laws dealt with procreation, which was not a factor in gay relationships. “The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology, not bigotry,” he wrote.

That’s not exactly an appeal to transcendence, but it is a kind of common sense. Unfortunately, the law is stuck in modernity and cannot desacralize the Myth of Progress or abandon the Worship of the Goddess Science. More unfortunately, much of the church seems stuck in the service of the same idols.

In Ancient-Future Faith, the late theologian Robert Webber recognized the importance of changing our communication style in the postmodern context--in part to allow us to remystify evangelical religion. This changed communication style includes “the rediscovery of ‘imagination,’ ‘intuition,’ and a sensitivity to ‘spiritual realities’” (p. 24). Webber then worked out how this communications revolution applied to worship and the recovery of the classical sense of mystery.

These same requirements should apply in the church’s approach to sexuality. Sexuality is, in a frequent Webberian phrase, “more than” what science can analyze and describe. It requires an understanding of symbol and a willingness to let the imagination and intuition loose to play.

That will lead some to the Dionysian feast and others to the joys of Christian marriage. Can we judge like Lewis that in sex, as in astronomy, a spiritual vision is superior to scientifically induced blindness?
Read more!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Church's Greatest Ornament

Here's a striking statement I heard today:

“Music is well or better able to praise God than the building of the church and all its decorations. It is the church’s greatest ornament.” —Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky

Source: Naxos Classical Music Spotlight podcast, “Rachmaninov Vespers, Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow,” September 8, 2008 (approx. 10 minutes into the audio file).You can subscribe to Naxos podcasts here or through the iTunes store. You can stream all podcasts at Naxos.com by registering to become a member. Read more!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In Summary: Third Annual Conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

The third annual conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future concluded today. Here is the text of the summary I gave those attending the meeting at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. If you were unable to attend, perhaps this quick round-up of the presentations and discussion will be helpful.

* * *

I recently attended a conference where Muslim and Christian leaders spoke together about their faith. The Muslims were pointed and crystal clear. Unfortunately, the Christians, by and large, failed to present the core of our faith with a comparable crispness. National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson was one glorious exception. Unfortunately, a very prominent Christian preacher left the most lasting impression. He stated that he had more questions than answers about the Christian faith and that we needed to reframe the gospel in terms of the human need for self-esteem.

By contrast, I have relished the past two days as core elements of the faith embodied in the biblical narrative were compellingly presented over and over again.

We’ve been talking about the church as the continuation of God’s narrative. God’s story didn’t stop with the end of Scripture, because just as the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus and ignited the apostolic church and inspired the New Testament writers, he continues to shape the events of the church as it acts as the agent of God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Howard Snyder (Tyndale Seminary, Ontario) kicked off our explorations by looking at the church in five historical periods and examining three aspects of each: the narrative, the redemptive plan, and the way in which the church was most visible. I was particularly struck by his statement that during the first few centuries the church and mission were one. The church didn’t have a mission; the church was mission.

In the panel discussion that followed, Dan Williams (Baylor University) and Chris Hall (Eastern University) asked whether Howard quite had the story right, suggesting that he was mirroring the traditional evangelical account of the early church’s decline and (much) later restoration.

I think many of us have been influenced by that narrative of decline and restoration. I know that I was raised to think that the post-apostolic church fell almost immediately into apostasy and did not experience significant restoration until Luther went to his workshop to find a hammer and some nails. But even if you read the story differently from the way Howard does, you’ll have to agree that his is about the most generous version of the decline narrative you could find. He highlighted genuinely redemptive moments and movements in each of the major eras of the church’s narrative.

Then Jenell Williams Paris (Messiah College) took us through three narratives about the church to examine the way we deal with “the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.” As an anthropologist she helped us think realistically about the church, and she prodded us to think about how best to integrate the good, the bad, and the ridiculous that already exist in our churches. It is not our responsibility to spin the story so that God looks good, she told us. Bad, said Jenell, is never for nothing but always works to advance the narrative towards its proper climax.

David Fitch (Northern Seminary & Life on the Vine Christian Community) challenged us to recover from our Niebuhrian hangover and to look at the ways that capitalism (as a set of values) governs the way we do church. Particularly, that set of values creates and inflates inappropriate desire, and it engenders a greed for numerical growth that distorts ministry. The panelists disagreed sharply about capitalism, but all agreed that if you were to substitute a word like, say, “marketing” for “capitalism,” it would definitely describe the false narrative that the contemporary church has written into its script. The church, all agreed, needs to engage in forming its members spiritually with God’s narrative, and so help them resist being formed by the marketing or capitalist narrative they hear shouted at them every day. In particular, direct engagement with the poor will help believers resist being squeezed into the world’s mold.

Last night, D. H. Williams led us through a description of the early church’s ways of reorienting new believers away from the multiple religious and philosophical stories of Greco-Roman pluralism and providing them instead with a core story that would be a foundation for their lives. Dan gave us a reading of this catechetical process that accented core doctrine. The beginning of catechesis, he said, was focusing the believer on God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and not on the believer’s experience or personal journey. Earliest Christianity was a teaching church. In our panel discussion, we clarified that this did not mean merely abstract doctrine, but rather the complex of revealed truth, moral practice, and ritual experience that provided an irreducible foundation on which to build Christian lives.

And now this morning, Rick Richardson (Wheaton College) has turned our attention to mission. He has given us a rich survey of the origins and various streams of missional church thinking. He has warned us of the dangers of each stream, and he has suggested how we might discern a given congregation’s best approach to mission.

Two of Rick’s remarks caught my attention. First, Rick said that whenever we recapture the eschatological emphasis of Jesus, the missional identity of the church is renewed. Second, Rick suggested that just as we discover our spiritual gifts by using them, a church can discover its missional DNA by expressing it.

* * *

That’s it for this conference, except for some important thank-yous:

Special thanks to Chris and Brian Monroe who have webcast and live-blogged this event. Last night when I got home, I found a message from the Wright family, living in Afghanistan, who wished they could have been here at the conference:

“Many thanks for the live webcast!!!!!” they wrote. “Though I'd like to be in Chi-town, it is good to enjoy the thoughtful discussions from the comforts of home. Blessings! [signed] jdw”

And so I want to give a shout-out to the Wright family in Afghanistan and to all the others that joined us via webcast.

Thanks to our publishers, InterVarsity Press and Baker, who have published so many of the books that feed the Ancient-Future movement with insights. And let me also mention Zondervan, which is in the process of bringing out a 30th anniversary edition of Bob Webber’s 1978 book, Common Roots, the volume that started it all.

Thanks also to Northern Seminary and President Alistair Brown for hosting us, to Phil Kenyon and Ashley Gieschen for the incredible detail work they have done, to Karen Roberts and the worship team, to sound engineers Chris and Sheldon, and to all our panelists and presenters. Without any of these, our conference would have been much the poorer.

Plans for next year’s conference are still in the works. We’ll be sure to e-mail those who attended this and previous conferences when we develop the plans.
Read more!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

AEF Conference Begins Tonight with Webcast

Ancient Evangelical Future friends Chris "Desert Pastor" Monroe and his son Brian will once again be providing video of the AEF conference. This year, however, they'll be providing a live web feed. I'll embed the code here, and hope that tonight, when I'm away from my computer and emceeing the program, it all works for you.

Tonight's speaker is Howard Snyder, author of the 1975 classic The Problem of Wineskins: Church Stucture in a Technological Age. The program gets started about 7:00 PM Central with a time of worship, welcomes, and introductions followed by Howard's address and a panel discussion.

Thanks to Chris and Brian for making this event available to our web audience. Read more!