Monday, September 14, 2009

Baptizing Secular to Make It Sacred


A fellow Lutheran Pastor blogger posted the worst worship video ever -- don't watch it without some pain reliever close by. It is a little bit of Love Train remade into a Jesus Song -- some words are changed but the rhythm and beat are unmistakable. And the people on the video were dancin' for Jesus till their socks came off... well, you have to watch it to figure out that reference...

The video is not what this post is about but the whole idea of borrowing from the secular culture, baptizing what we borrow, and then calling it Christian. Some claim the Church has done it liberally over all the centuries. Some claim Luther borrowed beer drinking tunes for his hymns. There is the oft repeated but never actually said quote: Why must the devil have all the good music? But it is not just music. The move today is to wholesale borrowing of things from culture and with a slight of hand transforming them into Christian... views on marriage and family... global warming... what happens in worship... sermons that are born of what people's interests or curiosities...

Let me firmly explain that whenever the Church has tried to borrow something from culture it has been a disaster. Take Christmas for example. The mere fact that we have to put Christ back into Christmas should suggest that the secular origins of things cannot fully be erased nor redirected even with the best motivation.

When we borrow music from culture, we end up placing culture right up there with the Gospel. It is as if we are saying that Jesus accepts us all as we are... from the polka masses of another era to the folk songs that parade as contemporary music in worship to the rock and roll beats that pump out sensuality only to direct that aching heart to Jesus to the pop music that duops Jesus into a happy day to the rap music that tsss tsss ummms Jesus into the background while the beat pounds away at us... Check out this example of a Sanctus with a few traditional words and some untraditional music, gestures, and words (click on the music to day 5, section 7, on the right column).

Where did we get this foolish idea that we can take secular things, tinker with them, and make them Christian? It took Jesus' suffering and death to steal us away from the secular prison of sin and death -- no small amount of tinkering or a quick repackaging but death and resurrection. Jesus has come as the Christ transforming culture -- but not by accepting bits and pieces of the broken culture that is there -- no, He makes new what is old and alive what is dead so that we are in but not of the world in this earthly life and citizens of a new heaven and a new earth in the life which is to come.

Where did this insanity come from that thinks you can take all that is appealing to us from culture, perform a slight face lift on it, and it becomes an acceptable and efficient vehicle for Christian proclamation and worship? Clearly, the very things that make some of these things attractive to us are the things that make them suspect for use in Christian witness and worship.

We may be able to borrow a folk melody or two but even then it is not neutral. Some, for example, are fond of the use of Londonderry Air ("O Danny Boy" for you non musical types). But I ask you, is there anyone who sings Christian words to that tune who is not thinking "O Danny Boy?" Now "O Danny Boy" is not necessarily an objectionable association but is it beneficial to the Gospel and to the Gospel words you may set to that tune? Even when the secular item is not shameful or embarrassing, it can still stand in the way of the Gospel coming through loud and clear.

This is not about high culture vs low culture -- this is not about taste! It is about associations that transcend the words and images of a thing. We cannot baptize Debussy because it is good music and then stick our noses up at other borrowings from culture. We have to be consistent. There is enough good Christian music in our past and there are many great Christian composers and authors in our present to give us faithful music and noble art for the worship and witness of God's people.

So when it comes to borrowing from the culture, I am one for caution... be careful... the very thing that we like about it may be the impediment to its use in Christian worship and witness... and it may end up biting us on the behind in the end... We may end up creating something that overshadows and detracts from the very thing we want to make front and center... So there you have my opinion on the borrowing from culture that seems to be even more common today than in the ages before...

4 comments:

Jeremy Clifton said...

Amen! I don't expect that anything that has been "borrowed & baptized" will really stand the test of time the way so much of our liturgy and music has.

I'm specifically thinking of the "Folk Mass" LP I picked up at a library book sale a few years back. I call it "Mass: The Musical" because it really does sound that ridiculous ...

Father Hollywood said...

When I was a high school campus pastor, a baby-boomer DCE was (over my vehement objection) called in to preach and conduct the liturgy in chapel. He used a boom box with the "music" of an f-word-laden Eminem song and simply substituted Jesus lyrics instead of the profanity.

My students (most of whom were not Lutheran) were appalled, and one of them (surprisingly, a rather "free-spirit" type girl) complained to the principal about it being inappropriate.

I was pleased at the reaction of my students, and yes, I was also a little surprised. But some reactions are, I suppose visceral. There is something simply putrid and insulting to young people to swap out the f-word for "Jesus" and call it youth "worship."

Maybe we should not only respect Jesus more than we do, but respect young people more as well. We seem content to give them the bottom of the barrel and assume that's ultimately what they want and need. No real Christian, young or old, wants to see Jesus profaned and His holy bride mocked.

I'm glad I wasn't treated so shabbily when I was a teenage Lutheran.

Pastor Peters said...

Great words, Fr. Hollywood and, BTW, I enjoy your blogging posts elsewhere... great stuff... always something to hold on to...

Janis Williams said...

Wow. I thought Shakerism had gone the way of the DoDo.

And Lutherans are worried about germs on the chalice????

I've read the book, The Gagging of God, and that's NOT what it's about...