Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Remedy for "Worship Wars"

This post will conclude my "mini-series" about music.  And I need to start it by asking if you will forgive me.  I sense the Lord showing me that I began this series with a cocky attitude.  It's most evident in the first paragraph of the first post, in which I sort of flippantly chuckled about needing to stir up some controversy to spice up my blog.  While I'm sure there are trivial topics in which humor and controversy can be legitimately mixed, worship music is not one of them.  For me to joke and strut about a controversy which has caused untold heartache to churches and church members on both sides was clearly sinful.  And this may have caused the rest of my posts to be framed in a combative mood.  I should have remembered that the first prerequisite for a "prophet" is not knowledge or even wisdom, but tears.

The last post ended by asking why sometimes evil people like good music and godly people like evil music.  If it's true that our view of God will shape our aesthetic expressions, why is it that sometimes real evil comes packaged in real beauty?

Jesus helps us understand the answer when He tells the Pharisees,
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."  (Matthew 23:25-28, NASB)
Observe the two methods of 'dishwashing' that Jesus contrasts here.  First, there is the Pharisee method: clean the outside.  After all, this is the part that people see.  We can't see the hearts of other people (we have enough trouble even judging our own hearts accurately!).  So it's natural to settle for comparing our observable actions with those of others.  And it's usually not hard to find someone whose "outside" is "dirtier" than ours!  
Jesus' dishwashing method starts from the inside, the part of our lives that only God and we see.  He says that when we do, the natural consequence is that the outside becomes clean too. ("...first clean the that the outside may become clean also.")  Notice that Jesus does not say that the external is unimportant.  He doesn't say that we can say and do bad things as long as we are sincere at heart.  Rather, the point of this passage is that our cleaning should begin and focus on the inside. 

It's a great analogy that Jesus uses.  Because we know that the gunk on the inside of a dish is normally greater in both quantity and harmfulness than what's on the outside.  The inside is where the food goes, so that is where most of the residue will be found.  And if I see a UFO ("unidentified floating object") in my water glass, I'm going to go dump it down the drain and rinse it out before refilling with good water.  But if I see even something as substantial as mud or grease on the outside of my glass, I won't make a special trip to the sink as long as what's inside isn't contaminated.  Why is it then that we spend so much time trying to clean up "external" sins (for example, smoking or profanity) and so little time pondering the cleanliness of our heart?

From these verses we see that a dish (or a human) can be in one of four conditions:
  1. Dirty inside and outside (this would describe the people that the Pharisees compared themselves with)
  2. Dirty inside and clean outside (this would describe the Pharisees)
  3. Clean inside and dirty outside (a person whom God's Spirit is beginning to change, using the 'Jesus dishwashing method')
  4. Clean inside and clean outside (the natural outcome of cleaning the inside, the state we will reach imperfectly on earth and perfectly in heaven)
What does all this have to do with music?  Music, like all aesthetics, is part of "the outside of the dish".  It's  external and observable.  While we can say that a dirty inside can certainly result in a dirty outside, we cannot assume that because the outside is clean, the inside is also.  A person can, like the Pharisees, delight in external purity while clinging to internal filthiness.  So it's quite possible for a person to produce beautiful music while rebelling against Beauty Himself.

And of course the flip side is true.  When we spot external sins in others' lives, it does not necessarily mean they are not Christians.  Nor does the fact that their heart is being cleansed by the blood of Jesus mean that everything they do is pure.  A composer's great theology does not necessarily mean that all of his music will be great.

But what we can say definitively is that if we want to be clean, if we want all aspects of our lives including our aesthetics to be honoring to Jesus, the place to start is on the inside.  Aesthetics are purely external, but they flow out of our internal perception of beauty, which can be warped by our own idolatries, as I described in my previous post.

So how do we gain an accurate perception of beauty?  How can eyes that are clouded with cataracts be cleared?  How do idolaters become worshipers of the true and living (and beautiful!) God?  Only through the gospel.  We deserve to be tormented in hell forever for the ways in which we have rejected and rebelled against the beautiful God and worshiped the ugly pleasures of our own imaginations instead.  And yet that beautiful God became flesh and lived among us in an un-beautiful man's body (Isaiah 53:2).  He lived a sinless life, which only made us more conscious of the ugliness of our own hearts.  We became so uncomfortable that we beat Him bloody and nailed Him to a cross.  It was an execution that we deserved, but not Jesus.  God poured out the wrath that we deserve upon Him, and then raised Him from the dead on the third day.  God will raise us from the dead too (both literally and spiritually) if we turn from our sins and trust in Jesus alone as our Savior, Master, and Treasure.  Jesus took our sin and our punishment, so that we could receive His righteousness and resurrection.  He took the wrath for our perversity so that we could recognize and delight in His beauty.  Then Paul's words become true in our own lives:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory {try substituting 'beauty' for 'glory' in this verse} of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.  (2 Cor. 3:18, NASB)
In saying all this, I have of course assumed that my understanding of music is correct.  But let's assume the reverse for a minute.  What if God doesn't care about music or other forms of aesthetics?  What if I am unwittingly adding unnecessary rules to my life, perhaps lured by pride in "knowing more of God's will" than other Christians? 

Broadly speaking, I'm pretty sure there are still probably areas of my life in which I am overly particular.  I don't think that music is one of them, of course.  But the good news is that the cure for asceticism is the same as the cure for laxity: the gospel.  It's the gospel that cleanses us "from dead works to serve the living God" (Hebrews 9:14).  It's the gospel that releases us to "serve in newness of the Spirit, and not in oldness of the letter" (Romans 7:6).

We all tend to waver constantly between swallowing camels and straining at gnats, between complacency and severity, between license and legalism.  But no matter which ditch we find ourselves falling into, the cross of Jesus is abundantly able to deliver us from it.

Of course, this does not negate the need for practical instruction.  Paul's letters do include teaching about externals like modest dress, paying taxes, and pure speech.  But he never begins his letters with externals.  He always starts with the gospel, knowing that the internal change wrought by the gospel will produce and sustain external fruit.  (To read a "real life" example of how this worked in the ministry of David Brainerd, click here.)

So in the end, the primary cure for the "worship wars" is not greater knowledge of music, as helpful as that can be.  The primary cure is greater knowledge of God's beauty, man's depravity, and Jesus' mercy.  Though the aesthetics may not reflect truth immediately, they will follow eventually.  Clean the inside of the dish.  Amen.

Scott Aniol's materials on Christian music helped shape the structure of my own posts.  While I disagree with him on some particulars, his writings are excellent in many respects.  One of his books, Sound Worship, is available as a free download from his web site.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Daniel,

    You got the focus where it needs to be. It's not the music per se, it's what we bring to it, infer from it or read into it that matters. It is the same with anything else in life -- cars, money, sculpture, paintings, novels. I had a quick but very interesting discussion with one of the Bereans at Brerean Bible Society on just this topic concerning literature. His initial comments were much along the lines of your first post. After a bit of email discussion, it turns out he was being critical of false doctrine that has found its way into Christian fictional literature. Ok, fair enough - the literature itself wasn't evil, but rather the theology that had been imparted to it. That's where we are all called to discern all things in the light of the cross.

    Good Stuff!