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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Balanced Approach to Appreciating Secular Arts

And a voice spoke to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" Acts 10: 15

Years ago, I preached a sermon centered around this passage in a Homiletics class - that sermon dealt with the diversity of people in the Body of Christ.  However, as I use this passage today, it deals with something a little more relevant to the times, as a major debate has raged for some years over this issue.  What I am about to say is not going to endear me to some people on both sides of this issue I will discuss, because I will be stomping on some spiritual toes on both sides.  Thing is though, extremes exist on both ends, and neither extreme is edifying to the Body of Christ.  I have read literature dealing with both sides of this issue - some of which I will be referencing - and some of what was said troubled me as it was spoken in either ignorance or was misinterpreted by one side or another as a self-granted sanction for their viewpoints.   As I will show though, neither the Bible nor the Church condones the extremes, but rather the balance.  

I want to begin this with a history lesson that our priest inspired me with a couple of weeks back.  In the 8th century, a controversy rocked the Church called the Iconoclastic Heresy, and it basically said that any image, etc., was not "Christian" and therefore must be destroyed.  The people responsible for this based their assumptions on a Biblical prohibition about "graven images," and it was taken to an extreme due to noting some abuses of iconography as objects of worship (which is also forbidden by the Church).  It got to a point that even a cross on a church was an object of contempt.   Into this fray steps St. John of Damascus, a monk who also served as an advisor of sorts to the Muslim caliph of Jerusalem and as such understood what extreme iconoclasm could lead to.   St. John cleared up the controversy by saying that the worship of images as deity were the issue, not the images themselves, as no one can comprehend the likeness of God.   Therefore, he recommended that we exercise discernment in the way we use images, but did not say they should be prohibited.  Below is an excerpt from his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images which more adequately expresses his view:

You see that He forbids image-making on account of idolatry, and that it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God. You have not seen the likeness of Him, the Scripture says, and this was St Paul's testimony as he stood in the midst of the Areopagus: "Being, therefore, [8] the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, and device of man." (Acts 17.29)
These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fulness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. The Scripture says, "You have not seen the likeness of Him." (Ex. 33.20) What wisdom in the law-giver. How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localise mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His [9] form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. Have no fear or anxiety; worship is not all of the same kind. Abraham worshipped the sons of Emmor, impious men in ignorance of God, when he bought the double cave for a tomb. (Gen. 23.7; Acts 7.16) Jacob worshipped his brother Esau and Pharao, the Egyptian, but on the point of his staff.* (Gen 33.3) He worshipped, he did not adore. Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel of God; (Jos. 5.14) they did not adore him. The worship of latreia is one thing, and the worship which is given to merit [10] another. Now, as we are talking of images and worship, let us analyse the exact meaning of each. An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original. Thus, the Son is the living, substantial, unchangeable Image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15), bearing in Himself the whole Father, being in all things equal to Him, differing only in being begotten by the Father, who is the Begetter; the Son is begotten. The Father does not proceed from the Son, but the Son from the Father. It is through the Son, though not after Him, that He is what He is, the Father who generates. In God, too, there are representations and images of His future acts,-that is to say, His counsel from all eternity, which is ever unchangeable. That which is divine is immutable; there is no change in Him, nor shadow of change. (James 1.17) Blessed Denis, (the Carthusian [i.e., Pseudo-Dionysius]) who has made divine things in God's presence his study, says that these representations and images are marked out beforehand. In His counsels, God has noted and settled all that He would do, the unchanging future events before they came to pass. In the same way, a man who wished to [11] build a house would first make and think out a plan. Again, visible things are images of invisible and intangible things, on which they throw a faint light. Holy Scripture clothes in figure God and the angels, and the same holy man (Blessed Denis) explains why. When sensible things sufficiently render what is beyond sense, and give a form to what is intangible, a medium would be reckoned imperfect according to our standard, if it did not fully represent material vision, or if it required effort of mind. If, therefore, Holy Scripture, providing for our need, ever putting before us what is intangible, clothes it in flesh, does it not make an image of what is thus invested with our nature, and brought to the level of our desires, yet invisible? A certain conception through the senses thus takes place in the brain, which was not there before, and is transmitted to the judicial faculty, and added to the mental store. Gregory, who is so eloquent about God, says that the mind, which is set upon getting beyond corporeal things, is incapable of doing it. For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. (Rom. 1.20) We see images in [12] creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.

What St. John is saying here, in so many words, are two things:

1.  Iconography and symbols are a part of human nature, and are abundant in Scripture.

2.  Discernment is the key attribute in all these matters.

In other words, it is not a sin, nor against God's will, to utilize symbols and iconography, but we must discern its proper use.   That being established, let us see how that relates to us today.

Although the original Protestant Reformers were not guilty of this necessarily, there has been almost a resurrection of the Iconoclastic Heresy among contemporary Fundamentalist Protestants since I would estimate the mid-1800's.    It is largely due in part to an emphasis on a literal interpretation of Scripture coupled with Romophobia and also a reaction against the rise of theological liberalism at around the same time.   While their motives are good, many Fundamentalists have taken this to some odd extremes.  One area I want to address is music.  Just this week, I received in the mail a pamphlet from an independent Baptist ministry called Liberty Gospel Tracts based out of Michigan dealing with the issue of music.  It is a correspondence course they offer on Practical Christian Living, and it basically is a lesson designed to show the student what godly music is.  Like much of this type of literature, it has its positives and negatives.  On a positive note, it does address quite well the incursion of worldly music into the Church and its damage, but on the negative it proceeds to condemn all music, secular and sacred, that doesn't conform to the standards of the author of this study.   The author, for instance, takes great labor to point out the less-than-perfect lifestyles of composers such as Beethoven, and out of that concludes that basically Beethoven was some sort of homosexual transvestite who wore long hair, and that people who listen to composers with long hair are going to hell for some weird reason.   I have heard a lot of this talk before, and frankly feel it is a type of iconoclasm.  And, now, I wish to address that.

Contrary to some interpretations of Fundamentalist writers, I personally do not think it necessary to eschew everything that is secular.  After all, God gave all humanity the creative ability, intellectual capacity, and other attributes to produce quality art, music, literature, etc.   And, this is an attribute given to Christian and non-Christian alike.   By celebrating a good composer's work, or listening to a quality piece of music, one affirms God's creative ability of making us imago Dei.   So, if you happen to like Beethoven - he did compose some great music! - it will not send you to hell, I can assure you!  Also, if you like admiring the "Mona Lisa," go for it - good art doesn't send you to hell either.   However, it doesn't mean there are not exceptions or boundaries, as we after all as Christians are new creations and we have to be careful, and I now want to address that.

As I have mentioned, creative ability is something God has given to all humanity, and it is an integral part of our nature.  A significant aspect of that is having a sense of taste and appreciation for beauty and other aesthetic qualities of something a fellow human being creates.   That being said, we have a responsibility as Christians to appreciate the best of these attributes and we should definitely encourage the creativity of others.   That being said, we should also reject anything that prostitutes that creativity, and this includes anything that defiles God or nature, as well as anything that is contrary to the teachings of the Church or Scripture.   One thing I do not feel that responsible Christians should have much to do with - although it is up to the Holy Spirit, not me, to convict them - is rock "music."   Rock is technically not even a music, as it lacks a lot of the attributes of music and also goes against the scientific laws and principles God has established.   It also is contrary to the Christian life as it expresses rebellion, has no real creativity involved in its performance or creation, and in many cases it also openly projects values that are contrary to the Christian worldview.   Some of our Fundamentalist friends tend to focus as well on the lifestyles of some of these people, and as a result they often catch up into the net classical composers and others as a way of justifying their own iconoclastic tendencies.  I oppose rock music for a different reason, because if it were just the lifestyles, then I am afraid that would also rule out many Fundamentalist heroes of the faith as well - for instance, the writer of this Liberty booklet I mentioned earlier also esteems J. Frank Norris (a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Texas who shot a man in cold blood on a train), John R. Rice (a racist), Jack Hyles (late pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN, and innovator of the bus ministry who also was subject of allegations of some serious sexual indiscrepancies), and Charles Haddon Spurgeon (a man who smoked big stogies and drank brandy - not sins in themselves, but they are to a Fundamentalist Baptist!).    And, if lifestyle was the standard of what we could listen to, watch, etc., we would all be in some trouble, based on Romans 3:23!  A person who has a less-than-perfect lifestyle can still create good things - take Bunny Berigan, who was one of the greatest trumpeters of the Swing Era; he died as a chronic alcoholic in 1942, but still produced some great music.   My issue with rock music is that it lacks any type of creative quality, and now I want to address that to people who are within the Church who seem to think it is acceptable to bring this stuff into the Church.

The "Worship Wars" of the past 30 years or so in American Christianity have a root that is deep, and funny thing is that the same people I just talked about that condemned Beethoven are themselves directly responsible for all this.    Although that may seem a stretch, let me explain.  The Fundamentalist emphasis on eschewing what they feel is "against Scripture" has produced a type of iconoclasm, but it is an iconoclasm with two sides.  The one we have just dealt with, but the second has come about as a result of many new developments in the past 30 or so years in Christianity.  With the emergence of such things as Rick Warren and his "Purpose-Driven" movement, as well as televangelism, the Contemporary Christian music industry, the "Seeker-Friendly" church, the "Emerging Church" movement, and also an increasing secularization among American Christians, there has arisen a new type of iconoclasm, and this one has disasterous consequences because the emphasis has shifted from "getting back to Scripture" to making the Church more conformed to culture.   How is this connected to the Fundamentalists, who not only oppose a lot of these other things but have even been targets of them?   Well, unfortunately, it is the same mentality that drives both movements, although I must admit that I do share some convictions with the Fundamentalists on many things.   The common factor with both of these camps is an iconoclasm that centers upon the hatred of one word - TRADITION!  Both groups - the Warrenites and the Fundamentalists - rail in their literature, in scathing terminology I might add, against what they call "traditional Christianity."   The only difference is that the Fundamentalist seeks, in their view, to get back to Scripture while the Emergent/Purpose-Driven/Seeker Church proponent seeks to deconstruct and redefine Christianity in their own image, which they feel is their interpretation of what the New Testament Church is about.  Despite noble ideals on both sides, both are so wrong.    And, here is why.

The Church as an institution is first and foremost the mystical Body of Christ, and as such it exercises an unique role granted to it by Christ Himself, who is its head, to preserve both the best of our humanity as well as transcending it by reflecting God's Kingdom.   What that entails is a propensity for growth, and it is totally possible for the Church to adapt new hymnody, new technology, and other things God has gifted individuals with creating.   That being said, over the centuries the Church has utilized the talents of many great classical composers in its liturgy and hymnody, and it has also utilized the best in artistic expression.   St. John of Damascus made that point abundantly clear as he refuted the iconoclasts, and indeed had it not been for the Church, Western civilization may have been lost.   I challenge some of my friends in the Fundamentalist camp in particular to give Dr. Alvin Schmidt's book Under The Influence (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2001) as well as D. Jame Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe's book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997) for more about that.   Also, St. John of Damascus, and his courageous stand against the Iconoclasts, is worth a study as well - if it weren't for people like him, the Renaissance and for my Protestant brethren the Reformation would not have happened.   So, as the Fundamentalists attempt to eschew certain things, and the Emergent Church people attempt to deconstruct the legacy of the Church, they need to understand they do so in great ignorance and with great consequence.   As the Church continues until the coming of its Master in glory one day, it will continue to adapt certain things to its heritage - that is inevitable.  But, the things it adapts should never contradict or destroy its witness, nor should its past legacy be thrown out.  The idea is to build upon the foundation, not to rip apart the foundation with each generation.   Ultimately though, it is about discernment.   We are mandated to do two things as commanded by I Timothy 2:15:

1.  Presenting ourselves approved unto God without shame

2.  Rightly dividing the Word of truth.

As I contemplated writing this, I received some insight into this verse I have never thought about before, despite the fact it is one of the first Scripture verses I ever committed to memory.  First, presenting ourselves approved unto God without shame.   One, this means we should always rejoice in the great legacy of the Church and its works, and we don't have reason to be shamed or afraid of them.  Many modern Evangelicals and Fundamentalists fall short of this, due to the fact they have a misunderstanding of the "traditions of men" Scripture talks about.  They seek to throw out the right traditions a lot of times while either creating their own or holding onto the wrong ones.   This has robbed many Christians of a great blessing.   Second, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.  What this entails is exercising godly discernment.   Many American Christians are impaired when it comes to this, because you either have the Fundamentalists eschewing the good things or the Emergents adapting the bad ones, and both miss it by infinity.    Also, there is a lot of muddying the waters when it comes to these matters too, because everyone these days seems to set themselves up as "armchair theologians" and in a sense they have become their own "popes."   This is why you have many Fundamentalists and Emergents throwing out Beethoven for different reasons but the same motive - one seeks to eschew while the other seeks to replace, and in the end both are wrong!  Discernment again is the key factor - in adapting or utilizing a new hymn, etc., in the Church, there are two important questions that must be asked:

1.  Does this conform to both Scripture and Tradition?

2.  Is this something that gives our best to the Lord?

These two things are a measuring-rod for the utilization of anything - new hymnody, new books, etc. - that is candidate for adaptation into the life and spirituality of the Church.  That being said, I have some thoughts to elaborate upon.  First, let me assure you all that it is not wrong to listen to secular music or enjoy anything of a creative nature in a secular setting.   That being said, I must also say though that not everything that is part of secular culture is appropriate for the Church - I like Guy Lombardo's music, for instance, but it doesn't need to be part of the Mass of our parish!    Second, some things however are not really things a Christian needs to be participating in, secular or sacred - rock music, pornography, drugs, etc.  Reason is, these things are not compatible with the Christian worldview and don't have a place in either the individual life of a Christian or in the corporate/institutional life of the Church, and that is why I do not advocate using rock music (or rock-inspired music) in a church setting.   An individual who wants to listen to rock music outside the church walls, whether secular or CCM, needs to take that issue up with God themselves, as it is a matter of personal conviction in that regard - some people have the strength to listen to that stuff, while others need to stay away from it.  I feel the same way about alcohol consumption - the Church has never condemned alcohol consumption, and enjoying a glass of wine with dinner will not eternally damn your soul, be rest assured!  It is the abuse and over-indulgence of alcohol that the Church condemns, just as over-indulgence and abuse of anything is wrong - it falls under the sin of gluttony, but in the case of alcohol, it can also impair your health and judgement if abused.   Rock music, too, is not something that should be indulged in, just because of what it represents and where it comes from.  Unlike other forms of music, which stay within convention and often grow and evolve (jazz is a good example of this), rock music has not evolved, but has devolved - it is the only form of musical expression I know of that has actually gotten worse the longer it is around.   And, its attributes are like a bad terminal virus in that they infect other musical forms and "dumb them down."   It actually makes almost perfect sense, for instance, as to why the Rick Warren advocates and the Emerging Church camp encourage using it - they have similar motives!  Warren, Erwin McManus, Brian McLaren, and others of this mentality seek to "devolve" and reconstruct Christianity in their image, and they want to do away with anything that is part of the Church's legacy.  And, they use rock music to do that to the Church's hymnody, because rock music is about the same thing.   That is why it doesn't belong in Christianity.   But, Fundamentalists are equally guilty - they rightly eschew rock music, but in their frenzy to divest themselves of what they dub the "traditions of men," they also throw out some beautiful hymnody of the Church because it is either "too catholic" or "too pentecostal," or some other thing that doesn't conform to their standards - and, that is the key phrase:  their standards (ie: traditions of men)!  Thing is, the Church's musical tradition and hymnody allows for a great deal of diversity - it stretches over hundreds of years, and encompasses every age, culture, and situation.  I myself pretty much listen to a diversity of Christian music, ranging from Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical hymnody to the Blackwood Brothers, and all of it is in conformity with the teachings of the Church Catholic as well as being artistically acceptable.   It is OK, remember, to use more than your brain in the worship of our God - He tells us to worship him with all our being, and that includes all of our senses;  it is all throughout the Psalms.  So, when both the Emergent crowd and the Fundamentalists start throwing out things because they are "too traditional" or they attach an allegorical meaning (particularly Fundamentalists when it comes to the use of incense in worship - it's all a symbol to them) to practices they otherwise would say are "too Catholic" (the ugly beast of Romophobia raises its head again!).  But, those things in their literal context allow us to worship in spirit and in truth, because God endowed us with these senses - so, in that context, who is actually violating Scripture then when it comes to the use of incense??   Looks to me like our Fundamentalist friends may have a little problem there, being they claim to be literalists - again, discernment comes into play. 

We have said a lot here in this teaching, and I hope you all get something out of it.  Some on both sides of the issue are going to be offended, but if you fall into those categories, I admonish you again to read I Timothy 2:15 and make an application of what it says in lieu of the Church's teaching and Biblical context.   God bless you until next time.