Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is something Christians are now starting to hear about (read: getting it stuffed down their throats at Mach 5). CRT is generally understood as the foundation for people’s understanding of “systemic racism.” To put it simply, CRT believes that “the system” is rigged in favor of white people. As Roy Brooks puts it (“Critical Race Theory: A Proposed Structure and Application to Federal Pleading”. Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal 11 (1994): 85ff.): “The question always lurking in the background of CRT is this: What would the legal landscape look like today if people of color were the decision-makers?” CRT is therefore primarily about power, as it is perceived to be unequally distributed. There is a lot more to CRT than that, but this is enough to be getting on with.

I read Bill Smith’s very interesting article on the subject this morning. Though I would have significant theological differences with Bill Smith in other areas of theology, I am in complete agreement with him on his analysis of CRT, and I want to highlight a couple of things he brings out. Firstly, it seems to me that CRT denies the possibility of change on the part of either blacks or whites. Not even God can change racism in a white person, according to CRT. No amount of apology or grovelling will suffice to make a white person woke enough to escape the racism that is endemic to his whiteness. Not even the gospel can bring forgiveness for this offence. This makes the inherent racism of white people worse than original sin, since original sin can be forgiven in the blood of Christ’s atonement. In fact, it makes racism an unforgivable sin period. I could be wrong, but I thought there was only one unforgivable sin, and that it had something to do with blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and not racism.

Secondly, the ethnic uniformity of whites, and of blacks, is emphasized in CRT to the exclusion of all individuality whatsoever. All blacks are oppressed. All whites are oppressors. This makes both groups incapable of moral agency, as Smith points out. Smith goes on to note that if moral agency is thus denied to blacks and whites, then so is the image of God denied to them. CRT thus dehumanizes both whites and blacks, contrary to the narrative of Scripture.

Lastly, and building on what I said above about power, it becomes obvious why statues of Ulysses Grant (a thorough abolitionist and friend to black people) are being torn down. All white power structures must go, even those which are historically kind to black people. According to CRT, justice will not be achieved until blacks have all the power, all the current systems are thrown down, and completely new ones put in their place by blacks in power. Only then will systemic justice be achieved (though see below). But this is to put one’s faith in princes. Justice is no longer in the hands of God at this point. It is in the change of power from whites to blacks. It can be questioned whether a simple power transfer would even be enough. I ask this question: will the payback (read revenge) be eternal? Blacks will, I think, find themselves in the position of Edmond Dantes, finding out, at the end, that revenge always goes too far.

A Further Thought on Racism

I have been told to my face that I am a racist because I am white. Let’s break down that claim a bit. The usual baggage that goes along with this claim is that whiteness is part and parcel of “systemic racism.” Therefore I am racist because I have benefited from a white-favorable system. I don’t agree with this idea. The point I want to get at goes deeper, though, and that is the fact that I cannot choose my whiteness. I have the skin I was born with. So the claim that I am racist because I am white is really a claim that I am racist by default. It is programmed into me, as it were. My DNA is racist. I can’t help but be racist. I couldn’t be anything other than racist.

Here is the problem. These people who claim that I am racist because I am white will turn around and say in the next breath that homosexuality and transgenderism are also things that are in the DNA, and that a person is one of those things, not by choice, but by a predetermined DNA. So, we are supposed to accept and not blame a predetermined outcome in the case of LGBTQ folks, but we can blame people who are predetermined to be white and therefore racist. So why is it that the LGBTQ community can excuse their behavior on the basis of inevitability, but alleged racists, who are also supposedly inevitable in their behavior, are blamed and hated?

Most of the CRT folks using the argument about racism discussed above won’t bring in original sin as part of the discussion. However, in a Reformed context, we cannot avoid it. Theoretically, a Reformed version of CRT could argue that both LGBTQ behavior and the automatic racism of white people comes from original sin, which is something God can save us from. However, this won’t completely work, either, at least not in the case of the alleged racists. Why are only white people afflicted with this aspect of original sin? This gets at another important point debated in the literature: whether black people are capable of racism or not. I have talked to black people on both side of that question. It depends, of course, on how one defines racism. If it is a disparagement of someone from another ethnic background because of their ethnic difference, then there is no reason to suppose that black people are incapable of racism. This is not a politically correct opinion, however, on the definition of racism. The CRT folk define racism in such a way that black people are incapable of it. So, if we go back to the original sin discussion for a second, we will quickly realize that it makes no sense at all to claim that a segment of the world’s population (the white segment) has a version of original sin that no one else has, because of their ethnic background! It sounds an awful lot like the first definition of racism to suppose that white people have a different version of original sin than anyone else does.

Of course, this is all so much logic-chopping to the vast majority of today’s CRT folks. Logic shouldn’t enter the equation, they say. Rather, it is sensitivity to other people’s feelings. I would respond by saying that sensitivity to other people’s feelings is a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be set over against logic. We can still try to be consistent. But logic is inescapable, too. They are, in effect, saying that it isn’t logical to use logic, and that we should logically use sensitivity, because it makes more sense to do so. Logic does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?

A Jeremiad

The America I knew and loved growing up is almost completely gone. The name, at least, remains. Some call it progress. I call it destruction. The people in charge are those who yell and scream, not those who debate with reason and analysis. The political world consists of those who have become so practiced in screaming that I wonder they have any vocal cords left. All political orthodoxy is assumed, not proven, not debated. It is shouted. The power of the shout, and the accompanying shatter of glass, is the only power that means anything today.

This same hatred has poured forth into the Christian world, the theological world, even the “academic” world. Freedom of opinion is not allowed any more. Only certain voices can be heard, because they shout the loudest.

For what then can we weep? Must we not weep for the wrath of God that is coming even through these glass-shattering shouts? Must we not weep for the silenced voices (which are not the voices the world thinks are silenced)? Must we not weep that we will shortly be joining our martyr brothers and sisters in other parts of the world as of a piece with the persecuted church? Must we not weep for the veil Satan has drawn over so many people’s eyes so they cannot see the spiritual warfare?

What hope have we? We have the hope God gives us. God gives us hope that silenced voices are only silent on earth. They are not silent to God. Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground, though his voice on earth was silent. We have the hope of resurrection. Like Abel, Jesus’ blood also cried out, but in a far higher key, to God for our forgiveness. It thunders in heaven. And because of that thundering, God raised Him from the dead. We have the hope that God’s shout of wrath is not the only loud voice He has, though even there, that voice is far louder than the world’s voice. His voice of many waters thunders forth judgment on the enemies of God, but also grace for God’s people.

It is right to weep for the loss of peace and tranquility for the Christian, though not right to cling to the idol of comfort. It is right to weep for the lost, who seem to be growing more and more blind. It is right to weep for the saved, who must now find a backbone where little was required before.

On the other hand, it is right to rejoice in trials of various kinds, counting them pure joy. The church will be a lot smaller five or ten years from now. All the fair-weather friends of Christianity will be gone. The fear of man will have scared them spineless (not that they ever had a spine!). The only people left will constitute a much more pure church. And a much more pure church can have a much more positive effect on the world. All of this is happening to purify the church. Remember that world history exists for the sake of church history, not the other way around. God is heading up all things in Christ the Head. His providence is still at work, even when around us all we seem to see is evil. Evil will not have the last word. God will.

A Change in Strategy

Satan has changed his strategy with regard to his warfare against the church in the West. For the period of the 1960’s up through most of this current decade, his strategy has been to entertain Christians into an oblivion of forgetfulness and numbness. It has worked to a spectacular degree until recently. The signs are that the church in the West is not quite so much in decline as secularists and many Christians believe. This means that Satan must change his strategy. The carrot is no longer working. The stick must replace it.

It has already begun with some opening salvos, the baker in Colorado and similar stories. If the Equality Act passes, however, the stick will begin in earnest. Of course, Satan doesn’t ever seem to learn from the past. Neither the carrot nor the stick can override God’s purposes in the world. The best he can hope for is to hinder the church. Will Christians stand firm? You see, the most insidious thing about the transition from carrot to stick is that the carrot leaves many Christians soft and unwilling to stand up for what they believe. Then when the stick comes, they cave in, rotten from within. Now is the time for Christians to pray that the Lord will restore our marrow, our backbone, our moral fiber.

How will the Lord God do this? The same way He has always done: through the regular means of grace. It is God’s grace that turns invertebrates into vertebrates. It is a steady diet of the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper, remembrance of and meditation on the meaning of baptism, prayer, and fellowship with other like-minded Christian vertebrates that will instill strength into us so that we will stand in the face of hatred masquerading as tolerance.

The only remaining question is this: are we willing to pay the price? The price will be necessary. Churches need to plan on losing their luxurious tax-exempt status. Pastors need to plan on doing jail time, for they will not typically be able to afford the fees. Will we see these things as opportunities to witness to the world about how Christians suffer for the cause of Christ, or will we do nothing but bellyache about it all?

As Western Christians finally realize that persecution is coming their way, maybe the most salutary effect it will have on us is that we will be far more conscious of our brothers and sisters around the globe who are suffering far more. Their lives are in danger, and they are being taken, especially right now in Nigeria. The worship of God is being hampered in China. All too often, Christian reaction to these things has been almost complete indifference, followed by a quick return to our mind-numbing entertainments. That possibility is coming to an end.

Covington High School Situation, a Few Thoughts

The most ridiculous news story I have seen in a while took place over last weekend. It was ridiculous because it really shouldn’t have even been a story. No one got hurt, only words were exchanged. That didn’t stop the main-stream media (hereinafter MSM) from blowing the story so out of proportion that Salvator Dali would have to bow in defeat.

I have some thoughts. Firstly, MSM is completely and utterly incapable of telling unbiased news. Conservatives have known this for a long time. MSM allowed prejudice to blind them to the fundamental fact of interpretation: context is king. Context makes things more complex than first glances can fathom. MSM reporters are obviously either not being trained in elementary interpretation, or they are forgetting what they were taught. It doesn’t matter at this point whether the boys were perfect in their behavior. They almost certainly were not. Why, however, are the MSM and all those spewing out hate speech against these boys forgetting that these are teenage boys? Considering the fact that a hate group was spewing out filth against them, I thought they behaved with rather admirable restraint. When I was a teenager I had all the emotional empathy of a wooden block. While these boys may not have done the most admirable thing (but what would that have been, do pray tell?), they certainly did nothing worthy of the hate speech that has been spewed against them by intolerant, prejudiced MSM and others. If we were in the position of the boys, what would we have done? The boys couldn’t flee, since they were waiting for a bus. They didn’t want to hear the hate speech, so they started chanting their school song. They made no moves of physical aggression against anyone. All in all, pretty good discipline for teenage boys! Maybe one or two of them committed a micro-aggression. Why is that worse than what some of the people in the video were doing to them?

The MSM have forgotten (for a long time now) that there is always more than one side to a story. Since conservatives are no longer human, no longer to be given the benefit of human treatment, the conservative side of any story is ignored in the MSM. I don’t care about the MSM. I haven’t watched it in years. But I do care about the boys at Covington. And I do care about civil discourse in the nation. And the MSM still have the power to ruin people’s lives because they simply don’t care. More than that, they are guilty of far more hatred than Covington High School boys are.

I pity the MSM, actually. As the saying goes, there is no one so blind but the blind person who thinks he sees. And if there is any group of people who thinks it sees today, that group is MSM. If there is any group that simply does not see how much it is contributing to the hate in America, it is the MSM.

Loving Our Country

Each Wednesday morning I send out to our congregation a revival prayer letter. A small group of our members use this every Thursday morning, and others privately, to pray for revival in our church, and in our community.

This morning’s Wednesday’s-4-Revival prayer letter addresses the topic of our nation and the church. While there is not any profound insights in this letter, it does (I hope) offer a biblically ordered and coordinated way of praying for our churches and communities, to the end that both the Kingdom of Christ is advanced, and our nation is blessed.

Given our focus today, I thought I might share it a bit more widely.
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Wednesdays for Revival #64
July 4, 2018
Reed DePace

Loving Our Country

A Weekly Prayer Devotional Seeking God to Pour Out His Spirit in Revival on Us.*


Historically Amazing

 

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photo: jeff hamilton, unsplash

As a fan of history (double undergrad degree in American History and geo-political science), I appreciate how blessed America has been in her short time on earth. She is rightly to be considered among the top ten world-spanning empires in history. This is not just in terms of her power. Yes, in comparison to other nations in her own time, America is the most powerful militarily, economically, and even to some extent, socially. Even today, in the midst of signs of her decline, and the rise of enemies (both old and new), America is the single largest exporter of cultural influence, the ‘currency’ which is a key component of an empire.

Yes, she has her problems. There is (once again) a terribly large and growing gap between her richest and her poorest. As well, real expressions of injustice continue to plague her. Yet, even in these areas of negative assessment, America stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world. America’s poor are at least equal to, and in most cases, more materially blessed than a majority of the poor in the rest of the world. There are even many countries where their middle classes enjoy less material comforts than America’s poor enjoy.

When it comes to justice, yes, any injustice is a stench in God’s nostrils. Yet there is far less injustice in America than in just about any other country in the world. And even where there is injustice, the American system provides a better chance of rectifying and restoring justice than do the vast majority of the rest of the nations that currently fill the earth. What’s more, the level of personal freedom in America, the degree to which the individual can go where they want, when they want, to do what they want, without being questioned, is still among the greatest ever seen.

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photo: frank mckenna, unsplash

Compared to the rest of the Top Ten Empires, America has seen greater prosperity, greater freedom, and greater justice, for a greater percentage of her citizens than all the other world-dominating empires, and by a large margin. If God could tell the Israelites going into captivity under the tyrannical Babylonian Empire that would rape, pillage, and destroy their beloved homeland to:

… work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Jer 29:7

How much more do we citizens of the Kingdom of God have greater reason to praise God and seek his blessing on the nation of our earthly citizenship?

Dangerously Ill

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photo: andrew ruiz, unsplash

In spite of her great blessings, it is true that America is in some ways dangerously ill. Given the state of our social discourse, it is almost impossible for me to give examples. For each example I give, some will think they’re hearing me agreeing with them on their list of “America’s Worst Problems.” Still others will take offense, thinking I’ve dissed their list of what they think is wrong with America. The truth of the matter is I just have an opinion, more or less  informed than yours, depending on the topic at hand. But that we can’t even begin to civilly discuss such things possibly demonstrates just how ill America is.

Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, “Any kingdom divided against itself is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart.” Mt 12:25

History shows that any nation in which democracy is the driving political principle is in danger of self-destruction when the majority will not allow for any social (i.e., public) disagreement with their opinions. That is, a democracy is always in danger of dissolving into a mobocracy, the rule of the mob (e.g., think: the French Revolution). While America was founded as a modified expression of democracy (i.e., the will of the majority filtered through and diluted by representative government), our government has more and more moved toward unfiltered, pure democracy. Worse, in our social discourse, our public discussion, and debate of our differences, the mob already rules. Just stand up and offer an opinion that the majority disagrees with. Overnight social hatred will form into an opposition in which its kindest and gentlest will utterly silence you. Worse, and increasingly more commonly than we care to admit, social opposition from the majority-mob threatens to remove your enjoyment of any dream for material comfort in this world, let alone the American Dream.

No nation in this world can achieve a state of perfection in which even a majority of her citizens experience the best of life all the time. In other words, Utopia is a fantasy that may sell books, but it is never going to be a blueprint for a viable nation. That America has come closer than most in achieving the utopian pipe dream is also a danger. It leads us into a dangerous pride in which we think we just need to try a little harder to get our point across to our opponent. We end up just arguing more angrily and then dividing further. And truly raw, no restraints mob rule creeps closer and closer to taking over our dreams for a better America.

Glorious Hope

So, is there any hope for America? Even though she will follow all the other secular empires and succumb to the King of Kings, is there any hope that America might find more grace and mercy from God? Yes. For within her midst is  a source of salt and light that God promises to use to bless her:

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world– like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. Mt 5:13-15

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photo: james bloedel, unsplash

In every nation and in every generation the Church (those who through Spirit-born living faith are united to Christ) is the hope of real blessing to that nation. Today this hope in the Church in America is still real. No, I’m not ignoring that America is increasingly treating real Christlike Christianity as the one enemy to be completely eradicated from her land. God is still sovereign though. And Jesus is still the victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords who sits on the throne over all nations. This means that the Church in America can still be the blessing our nation is so desperately looking for in all the wrong places.

So, what do we do? We follow Jeremiah’s advice to the Jews who went into captivity in Babylon. We pray for God to bless America with the only blessing that will make any real lasting difference. We pray, in other words, for God to send a revival across our land. We work for the peace and prosperity of America. This is not the earthly peace and the material prosperity that will disappear when Jesus destroys the nations that follow the great enemy empire described in Revelation 18. Instead we work for the advancement of the gospel. We give ourselves to our own worship and discipleship under the Spirit’s enabling. And then we go back to our communities and tell them that Jesus has something better, and more satisfying, than even the American Dream.

Let your conversation be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you will have the right response for everyone. Col 4:6

Prayer Advice

Dear Lord, forgive our nation for her many rebellions against you. Forgive your people in America where they have cared more for their lives in this world than your glories. Heal your church. Restore hope in America that Jesus is the only answer needed. Restore to us the years the locusts have eaten. Pour out Your Spirit in revival on us. To Your glory, together with Your Father and Your Spirit, we ask, Amen.

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* This weekly prayer devotional focuses our attention on some aspect of our need for the Holy Spirit to bring revival to our church. Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you (Ps 85:6)?  For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams (Isa 44:3-4).  Pick a 15 to 30-minute time-block in your schedule over the next week and use this devotional to focus your prayers. As you can, consider fasting from a meal and using that time to pray for revival in our church.

Reed DePace

An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

Let it be known at the beginning of this post that I love the Psalms, and that I believe the Psalms should be sung in worship frequently, just not exclusively. I heard this argument recently from a new friend of mine in the OPC, by name, the Rev. Brett Mahlen. He used to be EP himself, and so he knows the position from inside, as it were. The argument goes like this: the way most EP proponents phrase the matter is that we can only sing in worship words that are inspired, and that the Bible commands us only to sing the Psalms (usually they interpret Colossians 3:16 to refer to the Septuagintal division of the Psalter into psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs). The argument from my friend addresses the first half of the statement. If we may only sing inspired words, then we cannot sing in English, since the translation into English is not itself inspired; only the autographs are inspired. If we then say that the English translation (into meter, which involves considerable paraphrasing!) is inspired, then we are undermining our doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration. English metrical Psalms, as beautiful as they can be (and most worthy of being sung, I might add!), are not inspired Scripture.

Furthermore (and this is now my addition to the argument), by saying that only the very words of the Psalter may be sung, proponents of EP commit a word-concept fallacy. To remind ourselves, the word-concept fallacy is an error in logic that happens when people believe that words are the same thing as ideas, whereas the truth of the matter is that we use words to express ideas, even though those ideas could be expressed with different words. To flesh it out a bit more, an idea can be present even though a specific word is not used. Similarly, just because a specific word is present does not mean that the idea is also present. In this case, the word-concept fallacy is committed by saying that what is meant in the Psalter can only be obtained by singing the very words themselves. Then the error is compounded by saying that the English metrical Psalters can fit the bill of singing the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Scripture. Ironically, in other places in their Reformed theology, EP proponents would not commit this fallacy. For instance, Reformed EP proponents all (as far as I know) hold that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible. They recognize that the concept of the Trinity is very much present (even obviously so!), and yet the word “Trinity” is not present. The word “Trinity” is our shorthand to express the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. So there is not a consistency here with EP proponents: they say that we may only sing the very words of the Psalter, and yet they advocate English metrical Psalters to accomplish this, which English Psalters are not the very words of the inspired Psalms.

To push the point a little further, we may remember that several commentators on the Psalms have said that the Psalter is a mini-Bible. My description of the Psalter would be that it is an emotional commentary on all of Scripture, mostly in the form of prayers. The Psalter thus extends its influence on all the rest of Scripture in one way or another. If this is so, then it is by no means unreasonable to assert that any hymn that is biblical in content reflects the teaching of the Psalter.

Of course, no case whatsoever can be made for a position that says we must all learn Hebrew so that we will sing the Psalter in the original language. That would again commit the word-concept fallacy. The content of Scripture can be translated into other languages, and it is the content of Scripture that we want available to us. Translation of Scripture is implied in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, among other places.

So the EP proponent, if he admits the force of this argument, might respond by saying, “Well, as long as we have the content of the Psalter, then we are good.” However, once one has gotten over the hump of the word-concept fallacy, the whole game is given away, because of what I wrote two paragraphs ago. It seems to me that the claim that we must only sing the inspired Psalms is an essential linch-pin in the EP argument. Without it, the whole thing collapses to the ground. The EP proponents singing metrical Psalms in English are not singing the inspired Psalms, because they are not singing the original Hebrew.

My position is that we must sing only what is biblical. But by the term “biblical” I mean what is biblical in content. We do not need to sing only the very words of Scripture. Otherwise we would have to sing in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of “biblicalness” when it comes to what we sing. Some can only marginally be called Scriptural. Songs like “In the Garden” have content that can be argued as being anti-biblical (really, an experience that none other has ever known? Are you the recipient of direct divine revelation or something? What kind of walking and talking with me is the song singing about?). We should aim, therefore, to ask the right question: is this hymn biblical in its content?

The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

A Guest Post on Racism

It is fascinating to me to hear the vastly different perspectives even of non-racist people, which ranges from outrage at the passing of Overture 43 as amended (the outrage is thoroughly non-racist), to folks who think we probably haven’t gone far enough. Here is a voice definitely in between these relatively extreme positions.

A Guest Post from Rev. Billy Boyce

Considerations Regarding Racial Reconciliation

As the PCA takes up the discussion about racial reconciliation this week at General Assembly, the ultimate path to finding accord and compromise is sure to come through personal interaction rather than Internet publication. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a few brief considerations in response to some more recent posts and comments on the subject. I’m grateful to Lane for sharing his space with me and for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion within our denomination.
Given limited time and space, I offer here three considerations for those voting this week at GA:

Consideration #1: The Insufficiency of Institutional Documents

It has been frequently observed that the PCA expressly desired to include all races and ethnicities in worship, as indicated by the founders of the denomination, something we should all applaud. Also, a number of further institutional documents address racial reconciliation and repentance for past sins. According to the institutional record, the PCA looks pretty good regarding racial reconciliation. However, these institutional documents alone are insufficient for judging the record of our denomination. It is true that our institution has expressed the desire to grow in racial and ethnic pluriformity. At the same time, our institution has not lived up to that desire, but has had barriers to the welcoming of others. The documents themselves are insufficient for weighing the existence and effect of these barriers; personal testimony is needed to flesh out the record. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to “be true to what [we] said on paper.”

Consideration #2: The Weight of Personal Testimony and Community Witness
If institutional documents are not enough to assess institutional health, we need to listen to personal testimony. Yet, these testimonies are sometimes disregarded as being merely anecdotal. It is important to state here that there are two types of personal testimony. There is the type of testimony that only represents the individual witness; these testimonies are not enough to develop precedent. However, a second type of testimony exists whereby the witness’s testimony expresses both the individual’s experiences and gives a glimpse into the experiences of a community. These testimonies represent a community of witness and bear much more gravity than mere personal stories. It behooves listeners to discern which type of testimony is offered, and in the case of the PCA’s history of racial reconciliation, the multiple voices coming from across generations and ethnicities are enough to indicate a community of witness. This community of witnesses tells us that we have not lived up to our aspirations—what we have said on paper—and we ought not ignore it. This community testimony offers the PCA two points of witness: 1) the need for the PCA to confess and repent, and 2) the desire to confess and repent! Numerous PCA minorities are willing to participate in the corporate confession and repentance called for in some of the overtures. They offer a profound embodiment of the ideal of corporate repentance by participating in the repentance for sins that directly impacted their forefathers. Those who assert that it is impossible to repent of something that they personally did not do ought to pause and reflect on the willingness of our minority brothers and sisters to confess and repent. After pausing and considering, individuals may disagree. But in the spirit of Christian charity, it behooves everyone to ask, “might I be wrong on this?”

Consideration #3: The Primacy of Theological Faithfulness
In considering the community of witness testifying to the need for corporate repentance and modeling the desire to participate in corporate repentance, presbyters must allow the conversation to remain focused on theological faithfulness. Too often, I have heard presbyters invoke the specter of “political correctness” as the aim of these overtures. This is a harmful temptation, because these overtures aim at a much loftier goal: biblical, theological, ecclesial, Christ-honoring faithfulness. They seek to aid the pursuit of, quoting TE Lance Lewis, “redemptive ethnic unity.” To replace theological categories with mere political posturing is to rip the teeth out of this conversation and reduce it to another partisan squabble. This reduction guts the conversation of its eschatological vision: the ideal of redemptive ethnic unity, which is driven by the commands of Christ and the vision of the New Jerusalem.

These three considerations could be summed up as the encouragement to listen deeply and discerningly, which is itself simply a call to exercise wisdom. Wisdom hears and listens; wisdom is teachable; wisdom craves purity; wisdom longs for the beauty of peace and unity. Listen to those calling for corporate repentance. Listen to those opposing these overtures. Then listen again. May God grant us wisdom as we weigh all of the considerations before us this GA, and may he give us peace.

Is Musical Beauty All in the Ear of the Behearer?

The following is a talk I gave at the worship conference at Christ Church of the Carolinas. It is a longer post, because it is a talk that lasted a little less than an hour.

“You like what you like, and I’ll like what I like.” “It’s all a matter of personal preference.” “You have your music and I have mine.” “Different strokes for different folks.” Is musical beauty all in the ear of the behearer, just as visible beauty is all in the eye of the beholder? Is it all just a matter of personal preference and taste? Or does the Bible and natural revelation teach us something more nuanced than that? We can phrase the question this way: is musical beauty all entirely relative, or are there standards that we can discover from the Scripture and from nature that point to some objective standards? Now, let me be clear: personal taste and preference are not irrelevant. And, in suggesting that there is such a thing as an objective standard for musical beauty, I am not suggesting that therefore everyone has to like only a certain kind of music. Nor am I suggesting that an objectively beautiful piece of music would need to be appreciated by everyone alike. Different factors can play in to whether a person “likes” a certain piece of music. I know many professional musicians, for instance, who have heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony so often that would really rather not hear it yet again, as beautiful and magnificent a piece as that is. I know of piano teachers who refuse to teach Beethoven’s Für Elise, for similar reasons. However, I am not primarily here to talk about personal preferences, and why people like some kinds of music and not others. My purpose is to ask about the music itself. Is there anything like a standard of beauty apart from what we think about it? My position is that there is a standard of beauty, and that Scripture and natural revelation tell us about it. Just about everything that I am going to say today goes out on a limb. Just about every sentence would be contested by someone or other. Just know that I am aware of that. I will try to make a case for a particular view of musical beauty. It is not the majority position among Americans.

For Scripture, I would direct us to Philippians 4:8, which reads as follows in the ESV: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There are two points I wish to draw our attention to in this text. Firstly, Paul’s words imply that there are things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. They are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise regardless of our reaction to these things. This state of affairs would, in fact, be true even if no human being could appreciate it. I’m sure that some of us have heard about the old saw that if there was a rose in the middle of a field that no one ever saw, would it still be beautiful? Similarly, if an avalanche of rocks happened, and no one heard it, would it still make a noise? According to Paul, the answer is yes. These philosophical questions, of course, usually presume that God is not part of the picture. However, we cannot take God out of the picture. There is always an audience. God makes many things that only He appreciates fully. Stars that are tens of billions of light years away that we cannot study properly because we cannot see them clearly, God still appreciates the work of His fingers. And when God creates something, it is always good. Ultimately, that is the reason why Paul says what he says. In studying whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him. We follow his fingerprints, in order to figure out what God is doing, and thereby marvel at God’s creative power and infinite wisdom. So, these things are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, because God makes them so, ultimately speaking. Even things that humanity creates can only be so because God creates humanity. Our creativity is always derivative. We create because God first created us.

What logically follows from God’s creation of things on earth is that God defines what is beautiful in His creation. And that is everything that He has made. The refrain in Genesis 1 is that God saw what He had made and pronounced it good. Then, when God looked at everything He had made, He says that it was very good. All creation, as God created it, is good, and therefore worthy of pondering. Humanity, however, has not gone in the same direction as God’s original creation. The Fall brought ugliness, chaos, sin, rebellion, evil, and death into the world. We believe that the creation is still good, but that we humans have marred the creation. We have distorted creation, and put it out of kilter. This means also that rebellious humanity has often substituted the ugliness of sin and rebellion for the beauty of God’s creation. We have called good bad and bad good. The Fall has had a profound effect on our ability to recognize beauty as well as manufacturing our tendency to make God’s creation ugly. Similarly, when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, that also affects their ability to recognize beauty. Even as we say that, we have to remember that the existence of beauty is one thing, and the appreciation of that beauty is something different. This can help us to understand that something can be beautiful even if it is not appreciated, or appreciated differently. Something outside of us can be objectively beautiful, even if our subjective capacity is not up to appreciating it. So, beauty in music is objective. Our subjective likes and dislikes do not change whether something is beautiful or not. It only affects our enjoyment or appreciation of it.

Equally important is that the existence of the Fall means that many things that humans create are not beautiful. If we say that all art or all music is beautiful, then we are denying the Fall. How can a book, for instance, that praises drunkenness, sexual immorality, and idolatry be a beautiful book? The Bible describes these things, yes, but it condemns them! It is possible to describe a fallen world (even the ugly parts most affected by the Fall!) in a beautiful way. The Bible does this perfectly. However, it is not possible to glory in the ugly parts in a beautiful way. So Paul is saying that there ARE things that are beautiful, which implies that there are other things which are not.

The second point I wish to point out in the passage is Paul’s word choice at the end of the verse. He says, “think about these things.” The verb that Paul uses (logizomai) is defined this way in the Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon: “to give careful thought to a matter, think about, consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on.” Paul’s use of the verb here implies that what you think about or ponder must be able to sustain that kind of thinking and pondering. For example, it would be quite impossible to do what Paul is exhorting us to do with a song such as “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” That kind of song simply doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to sink your teeth into! The only way the song is even endurable to someone singing it, is if the singer is drinking all 99 bottles himself! It’s a trivial song. Maybe it was invented purely for annoying people. If so, the inventor was a genius at achieving his goals in life. So, the point we are making is that the material to be pondered must be capable of sustaining that kind of attention. This means that there needs to be a certain amount of depth to whatever it is we are studying in our following Paul’s instructions. It might be difficult to define precisely what it means for something to have depth, but in general, we can think of it this way: is the substance completely accessible on the first seeing or hearing? Or is there more to it than that? If there is more to it than simply complete and instant accessibility, then we are dealing with something that has depth enough to be considered according to Paul’s criteria. We can probably all agree that “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” just doesn’t cut it as something worthy of sustained attention and meditation! So, to summarize where we have gone so far: Paul tells us that there are things worthy of sustained attention, and that we should give sustained attention to those things. Along the way, we have noticed that God the Creator defines what is beautiful, and that we humans have often substituted something ugly for something beautiful, and we have often denied the effects of the Fall in the realm of art. Now, we will turn our attention to natural revelation, and see if it can tell us anything about beauty in music.

We immediately run into problems here, however, for music is difficult to define. Finding the one essential aspect of music that makes something music is difficult. If we go with melody as the essential aspect, then what do we do with a drum solo that has no melody? Is that not music? Harmony does not always exist either, for there are hundreds of songs that have no harmony, but only melody. Rhythm is firmer ground, because all music has a rhythm of some kind. The notes or sounds have to occur in some kind of order, even if that order is not always intentional. Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines music: “That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of emotion.” Later on, it gives an even more basic definition: “Sounds in melodic or harmonic combination, whether produced by voice or instruments.” I would want to add rhythmic in there, so as not to offend our dear friends, the percussionists. So the definition would then run like this: “Sounds in melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic combination (or any two or all three of these three elements), whether produced by voice or instruments.” The thing I like about the earlier definition, however, is the emphasis on beauty of form and the expression of emotion. These are two very important elements to which we will be returning. That gives us enough of a definition of music to go on with. The question now is this: how can we tell if a given piece of music is beautiful or not?

I believe the first place to start is with a recognition of music’s parallels with human language. Music is a form of communication, and it has a language. Even that is disputed by some musicologists (as is almost every sentence of what I am writing!), but for the purposes I have in mind here, the parallel will serve as a very helpful illustration. Music is a kind of language. We know when someone is communicating to us well or poorly, depending on whether they are expressing themselves accurately or imprecisely. But, even more than that, we can tell the difference between language that is beautiful and language that is ugly. Humans have not left language alone with regard to the Fall either! We can tell the difference between Revelation 21:4 on the one hand, which says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away;” and four-letter curse words on the other hand, which are vulgar and ugly forms of communication. However, there is more to it than that. Revelation 21:4 could be recited in an ugly way. This introduces the person who reads the words (or, in the case of music, performs the notes). If I read the text in such a way that each word exists all by itself and has no apparent relationship to the other words, then we have what a computer would do. This is something I always do for my voice and piano students. I recite the first words of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in two ways. The first way is like this: Once…there…were…four…children… whose…names…were…Peter,…Susan,…Edmund,…and…Lucy. The second way I read it is the more natural way that we would use in normal conversation. The point I am trying to raise with that is that music is a language and there are significant parallels.

For instance, English, to pick the obvious candidate for our purposes (though most any language would work for the analogy), has letters that make up words that are grouped in phrases and sentences. Those sentences are then grouped into paragraphs, chapters, and then books. Similarly, music has notes instead of letters (and even those notes are called by letter names!), small groups of notes instead of words, phrases that match English phrases, and longer phrases that match sentences. The phrases are then grouped together into periods and sections, which can then be grouped into movements in some cases, and entire works.

This parallel from verbal language to music has a very important point of application to us. What makes effective communication that will not bore the listener to tears? There needs to be form and order, as well as expression. How do we communicate this in music? Here is, I believe, the secret to all great music: the arch. Another way to say it is musical line. There are many pianists out there, say, who can play absolutely anything with their fingers because they have complete dexterity, and they have practiced their technique to the point of mastery, but couldn’t express something emotional or otherwise to save their lives. This is what I usually call the computer syndrome. Computers have come a long way since they first started being able to make sounds. You can even, with a great deal of work, get a computer to have a crescendo (gradually getting louder) or a diminuendo (gradually getting softer). However, the one thing a computer still can’t do (at least I’ve never heard it yet) is musical line. Arch. Rising and falling action. Let’s go back to English language. In a novel, what do you have for most of the book, if it is well-written? You have rising action. Rising tension. The protagonist(s) are struggling with obstacles in the way to achieving some goal. These obstacles must prove very difficult to overcome, or else you could not have an entire novel about it. At a point near the end of the book, there is a crisis. It is the point of greatest tension, greatest dissonance. Then the action resolves somehow. If it resolves in favor of the protagonist, then you have some form of “he lived happily ever after,” a happy ending. And if it resolves against the protagonist, then you have a tragedy. In music, you have a very similar structure in well-composed music. There is rising action, rising tension, greater and greater dissonance until you reach the high point of the phrase, or section, or piece. After that, the dissonance is resolved. Obviously, the resolving has to be near the end. In the case of a novel, it is quite impossible to have the climax of the novel be in the middle, because what would the author do for the remainder of the book? Just repeat himself over and over again about how happy the protagonist is? That just doesn’t work. It’s lame, and the audience won’t stay to read the rest of it! No, the climax is always near the end. The end consists of wrapping up loose threads of the narrative. Music is very similar. What is true about good music is that there are arches within arches. Phrases have this rising and falling action, and the phrases are connected together in a much larger pattern of rising and falling action. The whole piece is also rising and falling action. Bad music doesn’t look like this. Bad music hovers around a fixed point, like someone reading in a monotone. And bad performance takes those arches and flattens them into a pancake. Any of you who were here last night heard lots and lots of arches, whether you knew you were hearing them or not.

This observation about music as compared to novels can be supported greatly from special revelation, the Bible, and I mean here the structure of biblical revelation as a whole. The Old Testament is nothing if not rising action. The obstacles (antagonists) are sin and Satan. The protagonists are God and the seed of the woman. Which seed will win out? The seed of the serpent or the seed of the woman? Through the promised seed in the promised land, God brings to completion in Jesus Christ the ultimate plan of redemption. There, too, we can see that the crisis, the climax of all redemption is the person and work of Jesus Christ, focused especially on the cross and the empty tomb. And, if you look at the size of your Bible, and where that climax occurs, it occurs near the end of each of the gospels, which is well past the half-way point in the Bible. The rest of the Bible after that is teasing out all the implications of what Christ has done, and leaves us with the ultimate resolving of all things in the book of Revelation.

So, since this has all been pretty much at the level of the concepts, what does this look like in the worship music of the church? I have until now avoided the so-called “worship wars,” because I believe that these standards of musical beauty cross many lines. The most obvious divide is that between “Contemporary Christian Music,” or CCM, and traditional hymnody. I would say this: there are good and bad hymns, just as there is good and bad CCM. The date of composition is not what matters. All music was once new. What matters is whether it communicates in the way we have been demonstrating. That being said, I will say that, in general terms, hymns communicate musically in a more beautiful way than CCM does. This is because good hymns tend to have the arch-shaped phrases, whereas CCM tends to hover around a fixed point. Notice that I said “tends.” That is because there are some really terrible hymns out there that have no arch at all to the phrases. I think of many hymns from the revivalist tradition, for instance. Now, if I step on your toes at this point, because there might be some revivalist hymns you love, or some CCM that you love, realize it is not my purpose to be combative here. And, there are good modern hymns that have the arch-shaped phrases.

The other principle that is absolutely essential is whether the tune fits the words. Here also I must raise an objection to CCM. CCM has no resources for setting sad words. Psalm 88, for instance, is a very sad Psalm, a Psalm that mourns, and that sees and plumbs the depths of darkness. It should not have happy, major-key upbeat rhythmically snappy tune to go with it. It should have a sad tune that laments. Incidentally, the whole issue of lament is one that we need to think through in churches. Carl Trueman, one of my professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, once wrote a spot-on article entitled “What Can Miserable Christians Sing? (now printed in this book) When you’re feeling depressed, or sad, you don’t always feel like singing something cheerful. You tend to want to sing something that expresses how you are feeling.

However, and this is a big caveat, music in worship is not primarily about how we feel. This is a mistake that 99% of Christians make when they are trying to decide what to sing in worship. They want to sing something familiar, or something catchy, or something upbeat. Why? Because of how it makes them feel! The whole point of this conference, however, is that worship is service to God, not service to us, and that includes our music. So the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether we feel a certain way when certain music is done in worship, but what words and music will best serve and glorify God? That doesn’t mean we check our emotions at the door and sing in a monotone. Everything we have been saying militates against that sort of thinking. Singing in a monotone is not artistic music. It is a computer.

One last thing deserves mention here. This view of art does not make hymn singing or hymn-playing impossible for the average person. It is not a question primarily of technique. As I mentioned before, plenty of people with technique to burn are thoroughly non-artistic. When you sing, remember language. Remember rising and falling action. Remember how the words fit together with the music. Sing in sentences. In the best hymns, the words fit the music and the music fits the words. That is true beauty in worship music. That should be our goal.

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