Tag Archives: Religion

Faith Outside The Church

Yesterday, Dad discussed the three kinds of people “lost”to the church (outlined by David Kinnaman in You Lost Me): Nomads, Prodigals and Exiles. Some quick definitions: nomads are people who have drifted away from church, but still consider themselves Christian, prodigals have outright rejected Christianity in favor of another religion or no religion, and exiles are people who may not fit in with their church community, but have a heart for practicing their faith out in the real world and in everyday life.

At times I have been a nomad, and others an exile. Because of my dad’s work in undergraduate and later graduate ministry, I’ve always had a model for Christian life both in the university world (and the real world careers beyond) and the church world. I tended to favor the former, enjoying trips up north to Cedar Campus, and later manuscript study and hour long expositions of scripture by thoughtful and in depth readers of the Bible. Faith and religion were something that could be approached with the same rigor as other fields of study.

But my traditional church experiences varied widely. Since I was five years old I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with my parent’s church. One consequence of summers spent up north, was that for years I missed the youth camps at Camp Bethany, and subsequently had a harder time fitting in with a tight knit crowd of people. I craved the same deeper experience of faith that I’d been shown in Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, but instead was served lighter fair that perhaps took a single Bible verse as inspiration, but then talked largely through illustrations that had little to do with life.

This is not to say that IVCF was perfect for me. By the time I got to college and actually joined an undergrad group of my own, I had a tougher time fitting in there as well. Some of this was an early emphasis on building leaders which I felt some pressure to participate in because of my Dad’s role on staff (none of that pressure was coming from him by the way), and some was the unusual makeup of this particular chapter. Because of this, and later a relationship that separated me from church and family for a couple of years, my first few years of college were spent thinking of myself as a Christian, but doing little to build my relationship with God. Choosing to end a destructive relationship, and being invited to reorient myself back toward God through another college ministry led to the series of events that now has me taking a more active role in my parent’s church, and also resulted in my meeting my wife.

I’ve been fortunate throughout that my parents have provided both a model and encouragement for practicing faith both through writing and through my profession. I’m doubly fortunate to have a pastor now who has a real heart for the community, for society, and for exploring ideas deeply. But I’ve seen the desire for Christians to withdraw within their own community, to reject the pop culture and music of today’s society, and while I haven’t experienced a lot of first hand questioning of my more mainstream desires of writing, I know it’s out there*.

I do feel we are called to practice our faith in all aspects of our life, to live and breathe scripture. How we do that can vary widely, an sometimes is as small as being a good example, of practicing love toward others rather than judgment. I’ve met many Christians who practice this in real life and am grateful for their example. I agree with the sentiment (repeated by Kinnaman) of us needing to be “in but not of” the world. At times I have been “of but not in” the church, and I do think that many of my generation are inclined toward a more non-denominational, or even non-organized religion stance. I still find little particular value in denominational differences and doctrines, what Dad might call “Jesus and”, but this is probably a subject for a whole other discussion.

Has your experience of faith put you in exile in your church community?

*You can read more of my thoughts on not being a Christian Writer, here.


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There are always possibilities…

Believe it or not there are some scientists who believe in the possibility that science will one day prove (or at least strongly suggest) the existence of a god. Probably not the one that all the world’s religions have been talking about, but a god nonetheless. This group of scientists call their belief system creatively enough, “possibilianism” a term coined by Jürgen Schmidhuber, an AI researcher who blogs from time to time on Ray Kurzweil’s singularity site.

Suffice it to say there are many who feel that this ignores a preponderance of scientific thought. Their argument basically goes, just because a thing is possible doesn’t mean it’s likely, especially if all experimentation to date seems to lead to the conclusion that the thing is not possible. Gary Marcus in his New Yorker piece, likens this to a belief in flying reindeer. Stating it is possible if there are sleighs we have not seen ignores the fact that all evidence points to the fact that reindeer do not fly.

Unless you are younger than 7. Then you can ignore what I just said.

Here’s the thing, I do think that an understanding of science, mathematics and the physical world can help to solidify a belief that this world was divinely made, but I also think it’s possible there are reasons why science is not the best tool to answer this question.

One possible reason is related to the Tower of Babel, the story of which you’ll find in Genesis 11: 1-8, and alluded to in a recent story on this blog. I’ve always found this story fascinating, both in blaming it for the fact that I had to learn different languages in high-school, but also the goal of the people building the tower in the first place. They wanted to build a tower that “reaches to the heavens” or put another way, to touch the face of God.

Now it’s pretty obvious that the technology of that period of human history probably couldn’t even have scratched the surface of moderate high-rises in Columbus, let alone the buildings in Dubai, or the fact that we’ve reached out into space. There was no actual possibility, even if heaven were a place that could be reached simply by building upward, that these humans would ever reach God in this fashion.

Why then does God react the way he does, taking their one common tongue and changing it so none of them can understand each other? Verse 6 refers to the fact that if they all speak one language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

I have a feeling God wasn’t just talking about these particular humans, but about us as well. And I don’t think it’s that he perceived us as a potential threat. It’s just that this is not how we are to get to know God. The basic goal of the people building the Tower of Babel was to bring prominence and prestige to themselves, not to have a real understanding of God.

If we were to prove God’s existence, or even to meet him in a living context (leaving aside for the moment that most belief systems say we’d be struck dumb with awe) there’d be a sense that we did something. Certainly the scientist who proves the existence of God will have untold wealth and fame. But is this really the basis for a belief, for a relationship with God, for salvation. I actually give the human race a lot of credit. If we spoke with one language, and one mind, I bet we could literally find God. But that might not actually do us any good if it did nothing to change our hearts.

Even simple things we cannot prove like love are valuable to our lives, in many ways precisely because they exist on faith, not only blind belief, but the desire to act out of love, to keep love alive, and the desire to experience it.

It’s certainly something for a scientist to say God is possible. It’s something more for us to believe it as individuals.


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Scripture In Music (Part 3) – Contrasting Reactions to the Greatness of God

This is the third and final week of my Scripture in Music series, a brief class for Sunday School. You can read the previous two weeks here and here. This week’s handout can be downloaded here.

One of the most traditional ways people encounter scriptural music is through Hymns. As in, let’s all turn to number 32 and sing “How Great Thou Art”, ladies take verse two, guys on verse three, altogether on the final verse. These are often thick bound books (usually red or blue) and containing a wide spectrum of quality, origin and scriptural relevance. Whether or not hymns are a way that you personally like to worship, they have been part of the tradition of the church for centuries (and some of those hymns are still sung today)! They are in many ways as much a part of the life of a service as scripture itself. Today we’re going to make use of the back of the hymnal to find some of the scripture these songs are based on, and explore the history of two Hymns centering around the awesomeness of God; “How Great Thou Art” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

Hymn 101 (in my church Hymnal) – Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

This Hymn dates back to one of the oldest liturgies, the liturgy of St. James back in the 4-5th century. The medley is French, from the 17th century Picardy and the arrangement in most Hymnals is from the early 20th century. Picardy is sung in a minor key, with an 8:7:8:7 Trochaic meter, which means that the first syllable is stressed and the second is not. The title and opening verse are a combination of Habbakuk 2:20 and Psalm 2:11, and the last verse is derived almost verbatim from Isaiah 6:1-3.

The song is often sung at Christmas as it speaks of Christ’s coming, though the tone is tone is reverent and deferential more than happier tunes likes “Joy To the World”. I’ve personally always found the tune to be haunting, and a little difficult to stay on key when singing, especially in the jumps.

Let’s take a moment to listen to the Hymn sung in a mixed choral arrangement. Pay attention to the phrasing and emphasis of each verse, tempo, and crescendos versus decrescendos.

Most hymns have a tune that is repeated a number of times. What are the ways in which this choir and the text itself invite emphasis on certain verses or phrases?

We often don’t think much about angels in terms of day to day Christianity. What do you think about their inclusion at the end of the Hymn and in the passage from Isaiah?

How does the hymn speak of the various levels of the world, heaven, earth, hell? How is this point emphasized in the melody?

Why does the composed of this piece combine the Psalm and Habbakuk in the initial verse?

Hymn 32 – How Great Thou Art

This hymn was originally a poem by Carl Gustav Boberg, a Swedish poet who reportedly wrote it after witness a great storm appear and disappear suddenly. The Hymn is in many ways a paraphrasing of Psalm 8, though there are a number of other scriptural allusions as you’ll see from the handout. The version sung in most churches (including ours) is a translation by Stuart K. Hine done in 1949. He added verses 3 and 4, so half the song we are singing is not the original! These verses were inspired by the missionary Hine’s time with the exiled Polish community during and after World War 2. The song was popularized in the Christian community by Billy Graham’s crusades and has been performed countless times by singers of all stripes. There are 1700 recordings in existence to date of this song.

Let’s read Psalm 8 and then listen to the Mormon Tabernacle choir’s version of the song. Again listen for the ways certain phrases are emphasized.

How do you react to this Hymn in contrast to the previous one?

Do verses 3 and 4 feel like part of another song?

Which Hymn (sections of scripture) relate most to your feelings about God and your relationship to him?

How can we think more about the words we are singing and the scriptural basis for them?

How has listening to both these hymns changed your perspective on the scripture they are based on> How about the hymns themselves?

You can read more about this hymn and its various translations here.

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Scripture in Music (Part 2) – Scripture in Secular Music

You can read last week’s class on Brahms “How Lovely Is They Dwelling Place” here.

Scripture for this week can be downloaded here.

While Christian music is becoming more mainstream than in the past, generally speaking the chart toppers in the secular world have little basis in scripture. However, there have been several notable examples in the 60s, 70s and 80s that appropriated scripture for a variety of purposes, from protesting a war, to summarizing a movement, to something thrown together to fill some needed minutes on a new album. Today we’ll be taking a look at three songs that use scripture to convey a variety of different messages in wildly divergent styles.

The Byrds – Turn, Turn, Turn (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) 

Pete Seeger arranged the original setting of these verses to music in 1959, adding only seven words of his own (Turn (repeated 3 times) and I swear it’s not too late). The song has been covered by dozens of artists but the most notably by the American Folk Band, The Byrds, in 1965 (3 years after Seeger’s own version). The song was one of several that popularized folk rock music into the mainstream, and was seen as a call for peace as the Vietnam war was kicking into higher gear. The song reportedly took 78 takes over five days to get the material for the final cut and is credited as being perhaps the oldest lyrics in a number 1 hit (Solomon was thought to have written it in 1011 BC).

Despite using most of the King James Version of the Bible verbatim the song rearranges many of the couplets, flipping some and stringing others together that are in separate verses of the text, and some are omitted altogether. As we listen to the song I want you to observe which couplets have been flipped, which have been connected from separate verses, which are omitted, and which are repeated. Depending on how much we catch the first time we can go back over the verses as needed.

NOTE: For those of you following on the blog at home you can check my answers here.

Why do you think certain phrases are flipped? Is there a general pattern to the way Seeger has rearranged couplets and how does this change the overall tone of the piece?

What’s omitted, repeated? Why are certain passages left out and how do you think this changes the piece (if at all)?

What is Solomon trying to say in this portion of scripture and does this match up with the way Seeger interpreted (appropriated) it?

Trivia: 45% of royalties for this song are donated to an advocacy group committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict without the demolition of Palestinian settlements (ICAHD).

Boney M. – Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:1-4, 19:14) 

Our next song is a Rastafarian hit, popularized in 1978 by the German disco group Boney M. which became a UK #1 hit. Originally arranged in 1970 by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, the song embodies many tenants of the Rastafarian faith. “Babylon” is interpreted as representing any oppressive authority figure, and Zion refers to Africa. Rastas believe Africa to be the birthplace of mankind, so remembering Zion is remembering paradise, a paradise promised by the supposed second incarnation of Christ, Haile Selassie I. The bridge also features the last verse of Psalm 19 (a popular prayer favorite of a certain pastor of our mutual acquittance). Rastas also tend to relate to the twelve tribes of Israel, making this Psalm a natural choice. It has even been adopted by some Unitarian churches in their hymnal.

Again the King James Version is used here, with verse 2 and the second half of verse 3 omitted. Since this is a disco hit, it has a markedly different tone than the Psalm. As you listen think about how the Psalm is portrayed. What might be a reason for the bridge? How have the Rastafarian composers arranged the song to align with their particular faith. How does this change your perception of the Psalms used?

Trivia: This song is featured in the 2009 Rayman spin-off “Rabbids Go Home”.

U2 – 40 (Psalm 40:1-3) 

Following the studio sessions for their third album “War”, U2 did not have a good ending track. With studio time running out the song “40” was quickly arranged using the first three verses of Psalm 40, and subsequently became a staple of live performances in the 1980s and again in 2005. Live performances often featured long periods of the audience singing after the band had left the stage. The first verse uses verse 1 and the first half of verse 2, the second the second half of verse 2 and verse 3, with the chorus adapted from verse 3.

How does Bono interpret these three verses in the way phrases are arranged and in the overall tone of the piece? What would you think about this being a hymn?

Trivia: Weirdly enough the song was written, recorded, mixed and played in about 40 minutes which has nothing to do with the title.

Couple of final overall questions:

In what ways do you think these songs expose people to the Bible and might be used to lead them to faith?

Does scripture have a place in secular (popular) music?

What were your reactions to these songs both in relation to your faith and just generally?

Next week is our last Scripture in Music class. I’d tell you what we’re going to cover but I’m still not sure 🙂 .

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