Archive for category: Church

Psalms of Lament

12 Aug Joel Busby
August 12, 2014

There is a collection of ancient Hebrew poems that express confusion, despair, doubt, fear, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress.

The frustration and angst, often, is directed toward God himself.

And these poems make the cut. They get put into the Bible.

They are the Psalms of Lament. Apparently, the Hebrews believed that we could live those feelings and experiences before the face of God.

We live in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and a lot of people are tired of pretending everything is fine. They see the fracture in the universe. They see it out there, and they feel it in their own chests.

Unfortunately, many churches exclusively offer peppy, happy-go-lucky gatherings, convincing those in attendance that cliche God-stuff can be mixed in as an add-on to their life and it will all be fine.

A lot of people buy in. But, a lot of people are not buying it.

Too often, Christians fail to speak into the dark places. Secular voices, however, are attempting to address these issues, and people are listening — a point made so wisely in a recent article. (The title of the article is “In Sweden, Human Darkness is Confronted by the Arts Not the Church: If the church is to survive, it doesn’t need to be nice – it must address the big existential questions of sin and death” Read this!)

TS Eliot wrote,

“Why should men love the Church?…
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.” *

I find it encouraging to know that the Bible offers language, modes of prayer, and worship in our darkest times. We can tell of these unpleasant facts, yes, but we can also offer a way to worship in the midst of them.

The Psalms of Lament are that pathway. We have such a resource to offer people in dark places.

The good news in these Psalms is that Jesus felt those feelings too. From his cross, he cried the cry of one of them, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

He went into that dark place for you and for me.

I think we need to recover these ancient texts.

Not to necessarily dwell on them exclusively — because life under God’s rule is filled with pure joy and beauty also. We are followers of a resurrected Lord for goodness sake. This means there are all kinds of reasons for hope and joy and celebration.

But we should recover these Psalms and carve a space for them into our rhythms of worship.

We need them to speak for us when we just aren’t sure. Which happens to be a lot of the time…

* T S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 96.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish

05 Mar Chris Breslin
March 5, 2014

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at allgather.org.

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

14 Jan Chris Breslin
January 14, 2014

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 2, ft “By His Wounds”)

14 Feb Chris Breslin
February 14, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?”  And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Isaac Wardell:  This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference.  I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating.  Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship.  But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations.  We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches.  Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship.  I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions.  I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…

The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference.  LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship.  We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds.  Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31].  God says that he’s on the side of the poor.  God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.

In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing.  You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18].  You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27].  You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20].  You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful?  How can I follow you?”  He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].

Bifrost Arts- Liturgy, Music & Space from josh franer on Vimeo.

We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth.  People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”

I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about.  Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics.  There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.”  This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things.  We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.

HR:  How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?

IW:  I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs.  I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature.  You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor.  There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.”  You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that.  The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience.  The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’  You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions.  It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals.  We get really excited about this merciful God.  And it’s true.  But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’

This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference.  We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?”  Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event.  People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

HR:  Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?

IW:  This event will be two parts.  This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah).  We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”

The second is very practical.  Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship.  The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities…  We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship.  One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship.  There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship.  One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences.  And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.

HR:  You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters.  Who are you most excited about?

IW:  We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us.  Greg’s here in Charlottesville.  He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister.  He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”

We’re really excited about John Witvliet.  He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship.  He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

Makoto Fujimura, who’s a Nihonga painter and founder of the International Arts Movement, will present on creativity as a way of building communities.

Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community.  I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying.  One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world.  Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside.  They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.

At times they’ve been controversial.  They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes.  They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer.  I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship.  Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.

You can go online to see some of the other workshops.

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 1, ft “Psalm 46″)

12 Feb Chris Breslin
February 12, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  Tell us about the genesis of Bifrost Arts.

Isaac Wardell:  While I had been living up in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) [serving at Resurrection Presbyterian with Vito Aiuto], I had been quietly developing an ethos for approaching church music.  I had been studying music in college, studying hymnody, had a strong classical music background, and had been living in an urban, post-Christian community.  Incidentally, for about ten years, I had zero exposure to the “Christian culture industry.”  I was working in church plants which meant that I was deciding what we were listening to.  I wasn’t listening to Christian radio, but was going through hymnals and psalters finding ways for us to worship.  In the summer of 2007, we started doing a series of events we called “Sacred Music Festivals” where in small spaces we would  invite people to come and talk about sacred music and about this crazy novelty of people singing together- probably 75% Christians or religious people, but 25% or so just interested in esoteria.  Those events led to a partnership with Rev. Joseph Pensak, ministering locally to college students, as well as connections with other local churches and pastors who helped.

I was in my twenties at the time and probably felt a stronger burden about church music needing to be more excellent, more beautiful, more soulful…rather than reactive, creative.  That’s what I really excited about, especially because of my context.  I was working in a cultural context where those were the real values.  And much Christian music had such a reputation for being facsimile, consumer-driven and draconian.

HR:  Was there a major shift moving from Brooklyn to Charlottesville?

IW:  Bifrost has changed a lot.  As you said, now I work in Charlottesville, VA, essentially in a megachurch.  There are suburban evangelicals, brilliant minds like James Hunter and Nicholas Wolterstorff, college town culture and an evermore diversifying racial complexion.  When I think about how Bifrost can help the church, the idea of being aesthetically innovative and challenging the church to think about the arts in a much more deeply theological way is more of just one sliver of what we’re doing now.  We do much more education and thinking about how we can educate congregations, worship committees, and people involved in planning worship services to think about their way of approaching worship services.

While I’m really excited about releasing this record in the coming months, I’m actually starting to feel more and more that these church curricula that we’re putting out and these conferences and small events are the most helpful thing that we do.  It’s not so much just modeling this sort of ethos but really unwrapping it and showing some biblical concepts that you can bring into your congregation that can really give your congregation a new vocabulary for worship.

When I first came to Trinity it became obvious that our worship vocabulary was so impoverished.  People have “traditional-contemporary,” “high church-low church,” people talk about being relevant…all these things that are really not very descriptive about what the bible has to say about worship.

HR:  Tell me a little bit about a tension you might feel in your work between tradition and innovation.  Singing hymns in new contexts seems to have gained a lot of momentum and quite a following over the last decade or so.  I’ve noticed that the times when the Bifrost records do cover hymnody there isn’t an automatic impulse to necessarily “re-tune” the setting.

The hymn conversation is a fascinating one.  My personal thinking has evolved a lot in the last ten years.  The last thing I want to do is offend anybody, especially my friends who are involved in setting old hymns to new music.  A lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches didn’t grow up singing hymns.  I grew up singing popular Christian music.  When I got to college, I discovered hymns- the depth, beauty, poetry…all these things that were clearly missing from my previous worship experience.  A lot of people have that experience through RUF and others setting those hymns to new music.  That wasn’t exactly my experience because I went to school on a music scholarship, and was involved in a really traditional music program.  My discovery was in the classroom.  My falling in love with them wasn’t in a context of innovation, but rather just falling in love with them for what they were.  I have a more romantic relationship with the organ and the hymnal.  I don’t have a personal history of thinking of “old, dead hymns.”  When I first heard “Be Thou My Vision” it was a new beautiful, adult experience for me.

Part of what I did in my twenties when I was working at these church plants was just opening up the hymnal.  We didn’t have an organ.  It wasn’t some kind of evangelistic decision.  We were just trying to interpret these hymns in a faithful way.  If you listen to the Bifrost records, to a song like “Just A Closer Walk With Me” that’s just me playing the song.  There’s strings and a particular musical perspective that I’m bringing to it, but we certainly weren’t trying to turn anything upside down on its head and we weren’t trying to indict anything.

HR:  Inevitably every artist makes some sort of aesthetic decision.

IW:  Sure.  And I’ve spent the last four or five years digging even more deeply into the way I feel.  At this point I think I’ve come full-circle in thinking that the problem that hymns address is obvious.  Everyone can agree that in turning on [Christian] radio, the music doesn’t address real theological questions, all the facets of the human heart.  And you open up hymnals and they address that problem.  We can agree on that.  Beyond that, to say that hymns are the answer to all of our modern worship problems is problematic.  If you bring discernment and a historical ear to your hymnal you’re going to find some beautiful things in there, some things that were beautiful because of their context, and some things that are not beautiful because of the failures of their times.

Our children’s choir came in yesterday singing “Jesus Loves me This I Know.”  In this and a plethora of other hymns written between 1825 and 1925, that great 19th century British period of hymnody, there are a lot of references to dying.   “And when you die Jesus will hold or cradle you.”  It’s alarmingly consistent.  “If I love him when I die/He will take me home on high.”  You look into it historically and you find that during that period of time in the Industrial Revolution is the highest rate of childhood and infant mortality in world history.  In all these Sunday School classes, you have these kids showing up to worship and having to deal with their peers dying.  So you have people in ministry answering those questions.  You can picture those conversations and their attempts at answers that make their way into their music.  Some of these answers seem odd or perhaps even questionable, but for the moment they were appropriate responses in their contexts.  Likewise, you open up the hymnal and you see people answering questions in hymns.  Addressing questions about war, inexplicable suffering and death, globalization and mission; in the best-case scenarios you see these hymns answering the real questions that people are wrestling with in their times.

I don’t think that hymns answer those questions for our time.  What we can learn is to be inspired by our hymnal to actually look at the questions people are asking in our times.  You read James Hunter’s book: central questions about identity, sexuality, what does it mean to be a person, how do we know that life has any value?  Questions about money, human relationships…these are the questions that are on the news every night.  I don’t know that I can turn on the radio and hear Christian music answering these questions.  But I also don’t necessarily know that you open your hymnal and find answers to these questions.

I’d like to issue a call to songwriters not to stop writing songs and just use your hymnal, but to write new things.  The new Bifrost record, and probably any subsequent records, will be all original hymns and worship songs.  It’s important for us to start modeling that.  In some way there’s something incredibly faithless about resigning yourself to saying that “they wrote all this great stuff back there and we’re not capable of writing stuff like that now.”  I’d like to suggest that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaac Watts is the Holy Spirit that can inspire us to write something as beautiful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

HR:  Beyond answering specific questions for a specific place and time, how do you see worship music working within a framework of a ‘theology of desire?’  Your last conference’s curriculum began to explore some of these themes, seeing a human person as primarily affective or liturgical, how do you design worship with music that takes that whole person seriously?  Hymns don’t let you necessarily range the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that perhaps even the most simple praise chorus, that you could pick on all day, may be able.

I’m assuming you’re probably familiar with Jamie Smith and Desiring the Kingdom?  I love Jamie and his writing and teaching, and his new book, Imagining the Kingdom is explicitly about applying that question in a worship context.

For my Presbyterian, Reformed context, one of the main areas of poverty in the PCA’s collective understanding about worship is this understanding of worship as being just a transmission of information.  Presbyterians get really excited about hymns being good theology set to music.  And there’s something to that.  But this fundamental understanding of worship being information and a system of understanding imparted to you so that music is just a vehicle- that’s a terribly small way of understanding what worship is.

In the Liturgy, Music, and Space (LMS) curriculum, we try to give the reader two handles.  On the one hand, worship has a formative aspect; worship forms us to think a certain way.  And worship has an expressive aspect; in worship our love for God is expressed.  Worship is the expression of a whole relationship with God and its also the formation of a whole relationship with God.

That’s what we’re trying to offer, not contemporary-traditional, not high-low, but formative-expressive as the most scriptural worship categorization.  These two qualities are manifest in scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that you see God telling the people, ‘when you worship I want you to do it in the very formative way.’  Even Deuteronomy, he says, ‘I want you to write these truths and hang them in front of your eyes on little leaflets and I want you to write it on your doorposts.’  And even when God is telling the Israelites how to celebrate Passover, he says ‘I want you to set your table, sit down, and you’ll say this prayer, and the oldest son is going to ask the dad this question and the dad will answer in this way…’  This is a very formative prescription for worship.

At the same time, you have all these instances in the scriptures, from the prophets right through the New Testament, where God tells his people, ‘I’m not interested in you just going through the motions of worship, not interested in your feasts and festivals, if your heart is not right and your not being obedient to my word.’  And that’s the expressive part.  There are times throughout the bible that you read of these exuberant expressions, things much more expressive than we’re comfortable with: banging cymbals, beating drums, David’s dancing in the street.  Even in the New Testament where in Peter’s worship services people are accused of being drunk.  There is a very descriptive element of expressive worship in the scriptures.

Isaac Wardell

Isaac Wardell (Photo by Adam Clark)

I don’t think that delineating between praise choruses and hymns is always necessarily helpful or accurate.  The category that we use around here is ‘scripture songs,’ a subcategory being ‘psalms.’  I think those are really important categories to have in this conversation, because the Psalms are a best-case scenario due to the fact that they are super-expressive.  They’re very raw.  They’re more expressive than any Chris Tomlin song.  The Psalms are the psalmists bringing all their whole hearts to God.  But the Psalms are also deeply formative.  The Psalms are really challenging.  They don’t just give you words for what you already feel.  They give you words to grow into.  I think the Psalms have to be our model…you see that from Jesus.  When he went to worship God, he learned how to worship using the Psalms, he sung the Psalms, and in his hour of need, Jesus quoted the Psalms.  When he’s hanging on the cross, he’s not extemporizing.  He’s not just expressing, but he quotes something he would have sung.  You see the Psalms even forming Jesus’s heart and giving him language for how to talk to God.

The Psalms are the starting place and then out of the Psalms you have a criterion from which you can judge how good a praise song is and how good a hymn is.  If you start to see a great disconnect between our hymnody and our psalter or praise chorus catalog and our psalter, it should be clear to us where the poverty is.

But that’s not the way we operate.  We’ve gotten so upside-down in our understanding.  You have both traditional people that would hate it if you brought the emotion of the Psalms into worship, and then there are those who are all about expression, who have made an idol out of emotive expression – so that when you try to make a case that the bible just doesn’t want us to express things we feel but to learn to express things that we ought to feel – they’d react really poorly as well.  I think the psalms are indicting on the state of our worship wars.  The one thing we can agree on is that nobody wants to worship that way.

HR:  I recently interviewed Sarah DeShields from Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  They’re really trying to hold this in tension and use the handles “the liturgy and the shout” to speak of that dialectic of formation and expression.  Interestingly, they’ve wound up doing a few psalm-based texts to do this on a congregational level.

An Interview with Sarah DeShields of Renovatus Worship Music

18 Jan Chris Breslin
January 18, 2013

Sarah DeShields grew up in near Edinburgh, Scotland in a charismatic church, before studying percussion and moving to the states to serve as music director at Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  I got a chance to talk with her in December about her creative process as a musician and some of her most recent projects.  She released a solo album, The Pilgrim Way in 2011 and an Advent EP, Baloo Lammy (November 12, 2012).  Most recently she put out  a congregational record of original and adapted worship music, The Liturgy & the Shout, from and for her local church.

Hopeful Realism: We’ll start by talking about your own album.  What would you count, on this first record, as your major influences?  What are the main ingredients that went into the making of this album?

The Pilgrim Way

Sarah DeShields: At the time when we were making the record, there were several influences.  One of the main ones was that I was listening to this one album literally everyday called Camino by a violinist named Oliver Schroer.  He recorded this album on El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain. He took equipment with him and recorded in churches or just their feet walking on paths, there are sounds of local people, there are sounds of cows with bells on their necks.  The pace of the whole album…in between, are these incredible, beautiful pieces of his own writing that I’ve never quite heard anything like.  It’s classical music, but it has this really intense spiritual element to it.  It was on everyday, every morning, it was part of my daily journey.  I also had been listening to the music of Hildegard von Bingen, who is a medieval writer and saint that wrote some incredible choral stuff that is calming to listen to…very monastic.  I had those two things rotating all year, so thematically, that’s where I was at and it became part of the album.  I wanted the album to have that feeling of pilgrimage,  contemplation, and meditation.

As far as other influences that came out, my background is in a lot of classical music and I went to school for percussion, so I played a lot of minimalist music.  When I met Jeremy [Rychard Snyder, the producer of the record], he brought a lot of his influences to the table that I loved and connected with.  He’s very influenced by a group called the Bedroom Community.  As a group, they’re very interesting to listen to, because they’re such a strange conglomerate of people and styles.  That electronic/classical/folk thing going on is what Jeremy and I are inspired by.

HR:  I’ve noticed in both your record and the worship album two major themes.  When I listened, I wrote down “space” and “place.”  Both albums, in different ways have a lot of room.  On your record, which you’ve identified as somewhat contemplative, this is not all that surprising, but for a worship record it struck me as unique to have that kind of room to breathe.

As far as place goes, there are some spoken portions to your album, and on the Renovatus record “Burning Coal” actually locates the listener specifically in North Carolina, also remarkable for a worship album.

SD:  I don’t know that we intentionally sought those things out.  It’s really just part of our process.  In the worship context, while we do all of those songs congregationally at our church, they don’t all necessarily sound that way on a Sunday morning.  The purpose of the album is not so that other worship teams can go and learn it and do it on a Sunday, it’s really for our people to experience the story of what those songs are about.

For instance, “Psalm 51,” there is that whole intro…we started with just a Moog and some pedals and it was very eerie and strange and haunting.  For a while we were like, “we’re going to do some other stuff in there right?”  I was so worried about our congregation feeling uncomfortable to such a strong degree that they wouldn’t stick with the song.  The song came together, and that’s still in there.  Jeremy really fought for it.  The song is about brokenness, it is a hefty subject from a broken place and it is intense and it needs to feel intense.  We don’t allow ourselves in worship settings to really feel uncomfortable.  And sometimes that’s just sitting still for a while.  I think that it is easy when it’s something that you put in the background as soaking music, but if you have to engage it, I think it’s a discipline and a gift to have some music that asks to be engaged without having to turn it off.

The Gaelic stuff you hear on my album is my brother-in-law. He was raised on the Isle of Lewis and Gaelic is his first language. Sadly the language is dying out and they don’t teach it on the mainland so I never learned. The stuff you hear is the Apostle’s Creed and a hymn a local pastor wrote for the passing of his elder friends.

HR:  I’d be curious to hear about some of differences between the two versions of “Ye Nations.”

SD:  That’s one of the earliest ever songs for us.  “Psalm 51” was the first one we ever wrote for Renovatus.  “Ye Nations” was the second and it has been a staple for Renovatus since.  It is probably the most ingrained into our worship psyche.  Everyone knows it and I’m sure some people are sick of it by now.  When I did it for my own album, I wasn’t making it for the church per se.  In that way I didn’t feel like I had to care about what people thought of it or their expectations.  That sounds selfish, but it is also a very liberating thing.  It is incredibly important that artists have opportunities to make music despite whether or not it’s “sellable.”  I knew that version might be difficult for some of our people because they’ve heard a different sounding version for so long and didn’t have any other recording of it.  I heard from the grapevine that some folks felt like they were having a hard time accessing it.  And I’m totally fine with that.  When we came to make it for the Renovatus album, we wanted to keep it pretty simple, so I thought, ‘why don’t we just do marimba.’  It still has some of that minimalistic undergirding, but it is really more about the melody.  It just felt right, and I do feel like it was more accessible.  But what was funny on the release night, we tried to keep everything as close to the recording as possible, and everyone was completely engaged in it.  Maybe even more so than normal, because they could all hear themselves sing because there was only one instrument going on.

HR:  How much music on Sundays is original versus covers?  And how do you see this record interacting with the music people are listening to during the week, (contemporary Christian, retuned hymns, etc)?  Where do you guys fit in?

SD:  Usually on a Sunday at least one of our originals is thrown in.  But we do a lot of hymns.  We do a mixture of what’s out there and seems to be connecting with people spiritually, what’s pertinent to the sermon series…  We do some stuff from Bethel out in California.  We’ll do Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, things that everyone knows and can connect with.  We have this part of our worship manifesto as a church that I think is very important is that ‘we will build altars for the people of God.’  We do this to mark what the Lord is doing, the power of testimony and the power of story.  “Psalm 51” came out of a season of brokenness.  There was some death and loss happening in the church and there was also a psalmic series that we were moving through, so it made sense to write something that embodied that.  So these are the altars that we have, and what we raise up, as songs are part of our storytelling- to the world but also to each other.  Altars are to remind each other of what the Lord has done, his faithfulness and his hand over you as a people.

That was our intent when making this album, not reaching a demographic or pushing to a certain market.  I don’t ever really see that happening with the sort of music we’re making, not because it is so unique or crazy.  There are churches doing stuff that is far more creative than what we are doing, but they are probably in obscurity because they don’t resonate with the masses.  I think we’re really okay with that and we’re used to that.  Another part of our church manifesto is that we’re a bunch of misfits.  That’s kind of where we lie.  This music is really for our people, these people.  Going forward that’s always where I want the focus to stay.  Whatever songs we continue to write, they’ll be out of our experience with one another as a community.

Advent with the Gathering Church

13 Dec Chris Breslin
December 13, 2012

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood

© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 2)

15 Oct Chris Breslin
October 15, 2012

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

 

Hopeful Realism:  So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in.  Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing.  In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”

I think there’s a good analogy with pop music.  Is there any chance for pop music?  To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants.  We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it.  It’s a closed loop.  How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.

Chuck Campbell:  Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.

HR:  Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe.  Pop music is the safest of genres.  It doesn’t change fast or much.  It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.  How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?

CC:  Love?  Well they’re used to it.  We think we know what we want to hear.

That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher.  We don’t want to claim that.  There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary.  Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there.  But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.

The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure.  Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure.  I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way.  Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is  similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us!  And a lot of people know it’s killing them.  I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes.  Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…

And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear.  We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.”  There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places.  Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard.  It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption.  I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.

HR:  I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…

CC:  …Banksy…

Image courtesy of Banksy.

HR:  How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]

CC:  Or in the book?!  How did that slip by us?

HR:  It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination.  Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody. 

“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”[1] 

There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool.  I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.

CC:  When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material.  That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff.  I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that.  It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.

Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation.  I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things.  For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.

HR:  There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this.  He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.”  I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps.  After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps.  What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.

CC:  The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them.  Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them.  So they’re setting the agenda.  Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.

The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary.  It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.”  And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing.  Jesus is the one who does that.

One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting.  It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.

HR:  Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.

CC:  We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.

What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth.  They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard.  One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.”  Everything he says has two meanings.  It’s all basically irony in a sense.  While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else.  In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart.  Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on.  This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work.  These characters are here.  They are around.  We need to pay attention.

In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this.  And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.”  These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological.  I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do.  Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on.  Characters like that are all around.

HR:  A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?

CC:  You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?

As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals.  I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive.   That might be deeper than even an issue.  It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues.  Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.


[1] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 1)

12 Oct Chris Breslin
October 12, 2012

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In today’s post, Chuck speaks about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

The second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

Hopeful Realism: Some of your interest and expertise lies in what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.”  How have those interests developed in your work over the years?

Chuck Campbell:  The work with the powers began when I was doing a lot of ministry with homeless people in Atlanta.  I heard them use this language.  I was, a full day to a day-and-a-half, overnight sometimes, on the streets with homeless people.  I got to know some of the people and they would use this language.  This material began to make sense of what I was seeing…nobody wants there to be homelessness, but it just kept getting worse.

Secondly, it started making sense “of me,” in addition to “to me.”  It helped me understand my own sinfulness in a different way, in a kind of complicity and captivity rather than just getting up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna go do something evil.”  People in our churches don’t say that.  They never leave and say, “Thanks for the sermon, now I’m gonna go do something evil.”

So it pushed me to explore that material as a way of thinking both theologically and ethically about my own understanding of sin, what I was seeing in my work with homeless people, and to a little lesser extent in ministry on Death Row.  It was never theoretical to start with.  As I kept reading and working it really became a focus in my preaching work.  The new book is still dealing with it, but in some different ways.

HR: Where did this new angle, foolishness and folly, come from?

CC:  Even in the Word Before the Powers there is a section on lampooning.  Someone mentioned that I should look at jesters because that’s really what I was talking about in many ways.  Then three things happened.  I had a sabbatical and I read Dostoyevsky, who does a whole lot with “holy fools” in his novels.  I started reading material on the history of jesters, tricksters, and holy fools.  And I came across some material on the famous First Corinthians text on the foolishness of preaching [1 Corinthians 1:18-31].  These things started to come together.  So this really did grow out of the powers material, one way of dealing with the powers being a sort of jester-like, lampooning fashion.  And also there was a sense that potentially that was what Paul was doing when he was interrupting the work of the powers in First Corinthians.

HR: I was surprised how multimedia and especially how visual this book felt considering it is a preaching book.  Right out of the gates, the beautiful cover, Picasso’s Crucifixion featuring Don Quixote, seems to set a sort of vision for the book.  Then we’re introduced to a phrase like “bifocal vision.”

CC:  I need to give credit to my co-author Johan, who is responsible for much of the visual arts in the book.  He is an extraordinary artist himself.  He always writes with some sort of visual art.  I contributed some of the political cartoons.  I’m excited it turned out this way.  We wanted it to be a very interdisciplinary book with visual art, literature, cartoons and everything else in it, because that’s what preaching is.  That’s what we have to do.  We are always drawing on all these different pieces, even when we’re not Shakespeare scholars or experts.

The “bifocal vision” is a term from New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn.  It’s been a very helpful term for me and as you see in the book, it begins to shape the way that we look at the rhetoric of preaching as a kind of “bivocal” rhetoric that is trying to do orally what this bifocal vision does visually.  Martyn uses it as an apocalyptic understanding of the gospel, especially in Paul, where the New Age breaks in, interrupts, invades, the old age.  And yet of course the Old Age has not died and the New Age has not yet fully come.  So the challenge is to be able to see both things at once.

Sometimes people might use the bifocal vision to be like glasses where you see close up and then you look with a longer vision for the fulfillment.  As you may or may not have noticed in the book, we don’t take that route.  We’re looking at both at once, here and now.  In my mind, this is a more apocalyptic way, where the New Creation is already here; you can’t always see it but you can’t ignore it in the Old Age when you are seeing the pieces of it already here.

It is certainly a growing edge in the book: the rhetoric of preaching being “bivocal.”  Having to say two things at once, both the Old Age and the New, without letting go of either one in a real sense.  As I’ve thought about the sorts of stories and example that have been most powerful to me, they tend to be those kind.  Another aspect of the bivocal rhetoric is simply to keep things from being settled.  Where things are clear, rigid, and tied down.  Some of the forms like metaphor keep things open, which is characteristic of this life between the Ages.  This space between the Ages.

HR: Space seems to be another major motif of the book; this middle ground of “liminality.”

I underlined while reading, “there is no separating the folly from the wisdom or the scandal from the gospel.  Jesus too keeps us unsettled; he invites us on the Way, he calls us to discipleship at the threshold between the ages and bids us to follow -and preach – one whom we can never master or control, but who ever remains elusive and disruptive.”[1]

CC: This is a huge growing edge for me.  And I’m still trying to live into it and figure out what it means for preaching.  I preached on Tuesday in chapel and these sermons are still sweating blood trying to figure out how to do it.  One of the things that has happened as a result of this book and might be an important word for a lot of us in the church today, is beginning to think of the gospel not as something that gives us a solid security or clarity or ties things down, but really as the gospel itself keeping us unsettled and “on the way.”

We live in a culture and a time where things are quite unsettled.  So many cultures, and the church itself, is going through a kind of liminal phase.  We’re not sure where things are headed.  The danger there is to really want to assert and reassert a kind of reactionary clarity that grows out of fear.  So I think one of the subtexts that surfaces is that Christians don’t have to be afraid of these times.  We can live into them.  It’s really our space, this sort of unsettled space.  And we’re following the One who we can trust and we can see even in this tumult, the New Age breaking in.

This may not be new to anyone else.  It strikes me that it’s often assumed that Christianity provides the security, clarity, finality, solidity…but I’m beginning to think it may be something different.  Which might be some of the best, good news to free us from our fears that we can have as a Church.

HR: Along these lines, fragmentation is another dominant theme in the book.  There’s a sense that our view of fragmentation should not just lie in something being broken, but as some sort of artifact of the future.  That “faith means not to be in tact.”[2]  This is really challenging to me, but also sort of threatening.

CC:  It’s unsettling.  Another facet to fragmentation is being part of the Church where we’re not ever whole apart from these other fragments.  That’s where some of my colleague’s writing in the book on ubuntu keeps that kind of dynamic between the individual and community going in some interesting ways.


[1] Campbell, Charles L., and Johan Cilliers. Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012.  104.

[2] Ibid 46.

Process of Missional Engagement – Part 5

03 Sep Joel Busby
September 3, 2012

“Wait a second, God is doing something here…Ohhhhh.” – Mission as Participation

We pick back up with our series on Missional Engagement. I realize that our blogging schedule might make your head-spin. Apologies. I’ve been delayed in finishing this series because I just returned from a Short-Term Mission experience. I led a group of college students to Haiti and I’m freshly reminded of so many of the things I’ve been posting here. I’ve also kicked off another semester of college ministry AND I have an infant son and a beautiful wife who have needed me at each time I’ve tried to post this.

Enough excuses.

Again, the idea behind this series is to explore the ways in which we tend to think of “mission.” From there, I hope to offer thoughts on a path by which we can push those we lead toward a healthier engagement with the mission of God.

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves and fairly consistent frameworks of thinking brought to the table.

1) People begin with an awakening of compassion (I noted that here),
2) Then, proceed to travel on a trip as somewhat of a Christian adventure (and wrote about this here), and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship.

(Both paradigms have serious weaknesses, short-comings and dangerous assumptions. However, these thought-processes are often necessary steps. As pastors/leaders, we need to be aware of these frameworks and push further.)

3) After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. However, we then tend to think we should take-over and fix everything (thoughts on this are here).

Usually after many attempts to take-over and conquer, mixed with a fair share of helping when helping hurts (can you tell I’m writing from experience here?), discouragement sets in.

Another shift needs to happen, and this shift goes something like this: “Wait a second. God is doing something here. He’s been at it for a really long time. He’s good at this role. He’s building a church from every tongue and tribe and nation. He probably invites me into this process, but could do this with or without me. It’s his thing. I can participate.”

I’m calling this a “theo-centric” vision of mission. God is a God of mission (yes, missio dei language here). As Christians, we exist to join this mission. He has set the terms. He has done, is doing, and will do the work. Our role is subordinate.

I know that it sounds elementary, but the way we engage the mission of God so often runs completely contrary to this idea.

I’m so encouraged when I read about the ways in which the Christian movement is becoming an increasingly non-Western, non-North American thing. Instead, the Church seems to be strongest in the “Global South” (Latin/South America, Africa, South Asia, etc.) They say today that the “average” Christian in the world is non-white.

(Random sidenote: It always amazes me to think that in 50 years, seminary students will very likely be reading theology and biblical scholarship from African or Asian thinkers that we’ve never heard of. This will necessarily affect the shape Christian theology takes….)

Ironically, Christianity is strongest is the places where we typically send “missionary teams.” I think this is okay, but wouldn’t it fundamentally alter our posture when we travel to these cultures? Shouldn’t we be going primarily as learners, not teachers?

Wouldn’t this change the way we approach Short-term trips? Longer-term partnerships? Wouldn’t this temper our enthusiasm to pull a North American takeover? Wouldn’t this lean against the “go first, ask questions later” ethos of current mission trends?

Some thoughts on how to lead the people you lead through this paradigm shift.

1. Incorporate heavy doses of theology (missio dei) into short-term trip training.
2. Have your people learn about Global Christianity. Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom is a tremendous start.
3. Always, always, always carefully research and attempt to learn the ways God is already at work in a place.
4. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of missional engagement.

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