Monday 22 April 2013

Burning For What?

In January Chris Tomlin released his latest album, Burning Lights. It was astonishingly successful, reaching number one in the US albums chart ahead of such artists as Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and One Direction. I only caught track of it a couple of weeks ago and I've been reflecting on it over this week in particular. It's a bold, dynamic, smoothly mixed piece of contemporary Christian music. But the overall impression I was left with was this:

Is this really a worship album?

It's not that Lights isn't good musically. It's full of catchy, well-written songs that have been running through my head. Musically, it's a success. My issue is with the lyrics. Having listened to the album afresh my analysis isn't going to be as negative as it was originally. 'Lay Me Down', 'Jesus, Son of God', 'Countless Wonders' and 'Thank You God For Saving Me', for example, are good songs which are effective in inspiring worship. Yet the best songs on the album seem devoid of significant lyrics. I found myself humming the tunes but unable to really resonate with the words I was singing to myself. Most of the songs I wouldn't recommend for use in churches. I felt that, despite the potential in the music, bland lyrics let the album down.

Take, for instance, the climactic words of 'God's Great Dance Floor':
"I feel alive.
I come alive.
I am alive on God's great dance floor."
That confuses me. I don't know what it means. I can't sing along to it. I'm all in favour of vibrancy and celebration being part of our worship but the words just strike me as being devoid of meaning. More broadly, they struck me as being indicative of a 'partying with Jesus' mentality which advocates dancing and zealousness as a substitute for the image mainstream society might have of church where worship is dull and monotonous ('Dance Dance' is a textbook example of this). Taking music which is loud and high-tempo, telling people to dance and calling it worship is not OK in my book. I may dance. I may party. And I may do both of the above as worship - in other words, as something pure that I do as I was made to do it. But instituting them in a time of sung corporal worship is dilutes the significance of what worship is. Some may worship through dance but I (like most, I'd guess) feel uncomfortable with the idea. Which means that our worship songs need necessarily to focus on drawing God's people together through lyrics of substance.

Part of this raises the links between worship music and what I'll call 'Christian music', by which I mean professionally produced music by bands and artists which are Christian and which contain Christian themes and topics within their songs but which don't write songs designed for use in church worship. I'd say that Lights contains a mixture of worship songs and Christian music. In other words, some of the songs may not functionally meet the criteria for worship music but they still sound good. This in turn raises the question of why people like me feel motivated to listen to Tomlin's music. Tomlin is, after all, rightly renowned as a gifted songwriter that's penned a stream of rich, well-written worship songs. So people listen to his music wanting songs to worship to. What do we lose when our worship music gets mixed up with our Christian music?

I don't think that there's anything wrong with Christian music. I think that it's terrific that Christians, instead of either becoming straight-up worship leaders or mainstream groups, have decided to create music that honours God. I think that it's OK that they make money out of appealing to a Christian audience. I'm a great fan of Delirious?, who successfully bridged that gap in writing music that was both unashamedly Christian and musically good. Similarly, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Tomlin releasing an album that focuses on producing good music over and above coming up with new worship songs. And I'm sure that any worship leader who had the opportunity to record an album would want the standard of music to be high.

So good worship music is great and good Christian music is also great. But I think that they're great for different reasons and that we need to clarify the boundaries between the two. This will enable two things to happen. Firstly, it will enable worship leaders and Christian musicians to focus on doing what they're best at and what they're good at without attempting to copy one another's genres. Secondly, it will enable people who listen to the music to get what they're expecting.

I'm aware that this post hasn't been massively complementary of Tomlin's latest work. I'm profoundly not anti-Chris Tomlin. The only reason I'm singling him out is because he's such a prominent and gifted composer of worship songs who's been such a blessing to the church. But I do think that Burning Lights represents a confusion between music about God and music sung to God. I think that there's a need for worship songs of substance and truth that enable a real connection with God. I think that party music's great, but it's best kept on the dance-floor and out of church worship. Let's let all of our music be good, but let's keep the worship in our worship music.

Monday 15 April 2013

Shaun of the Dead: He Is Coming Back

Zombies. And Jesus. Intriguing, heh?

Shaun of the Dead is, in many ways, a film about a pub. 'The Winchester' is the setting of a scene in which five characters sit alone around a table, waiting. In the middle of a zombie apocalypse the central character, Shaun, has led a hoard of zombies away from the pub in a diversion. Shaun's Mum (Barbara), his ex-girlfriend (Liz) and three other friends (Dianne, the pessimistic David and Shaun's best friend Ed) are part of an unlikely group of survivors brought together by circumstance and by Shaun. With Shaun gone all they can do is wait. Look up the scene if you can, but otherwise here it is in dialogue form.
DAVID: There's no lights. There's no power. Where are the owners? And there's that bloody great hole in the window.
ED: You did that, you twat.
DAVID: Well, someone had to do something! I don't know if you noticed back there but we were in a spot of bother. Somebody has to take control of the situation and if none of you are prepared to accept that responsibility then perhaps...I should.
BARBARA: Will Shaun be gone long?
LIZ: He'll be back soon.
DAVID: How can you know that?
DIANNE: I don't think he'd leave us, Davs.
DAVID: Wouldn't he? How can you put your faith in a man you spectacularly binned for being unreliable? A man whose idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing? This is a pub! We are in a pub! What are we going to do?
ED: Get a round in?
LIZ: Let's just keep quiet and wait for Shaun. We can barricade the window when he gets back. 
DAVID: What then? How long? Days? Weeks? Months? What about food? What are we going to eat?
DIANNE: Toasties.
ED: There's a Breville out back...
DAVID: Oh, great then! Saved by nibbles! That must be why Shaun took us here before he buggered off.
LIZ: He's coming back.
DAVID: Why? Because he promised? And, even if he does, do you think that his master plan is going to extend to anything more than sitting and eating peanuts in the dark? What, is he just going to stroll in and suddenly everything's going to be OK?
LIZ: I don't know, David! I don't know any more than you do. What I do know is that we're here now and we have to make the best of it. Ed, give me a double vodka.
ED: Right you are.
DIANNE: I'll have a drink too, actually. Would you like a drink, Barbara?
BARBARA: Hello...
DAVID: Right, great. Fuck it. That's what we'll do. We'll all have a party. How about that? We'll all get completely smashed. Oh look, we've got our nibbles. We've got our Mini Cheddars. Our Twigglets. Oh look, Hog Lumps.
At this point Shaun's hand dramatically appears from off-screen and grabs the Hog Lumps that David has thrown across the bar. Shaun is back.

BARBARA: Pickle!
SHAUN: Hello, Mum. Alright? Everybody OK? Any sign of John and Bernie?
DIANNE: No, we haven't seen them.
SHAUN: Have you checked upstairs?
DIANNE: No, I think it's locked.
SHAUN: What's the front situation?
DIANNE: Dead, same as the power.
LIZ: Nice of you to join us.
SHAUN: Yeah, well...I promised, didn't I?
What do we have in this scene? Waiting. Hope. Doubt. Mocking. Despair. Determination. Conviction. Essentially, David's convinced that Shaun's not coming back and that, even if he does, he won't improve their situation. Liz and Dianne maintain that he will return, even if the circumstances don't look promising. And one of them's wrong.

We are all in the pub when it comes to Jesus. We know Him through His past and we know Him in the present but we also know that He's coming back. And so we wait. Sometimes the waiting seems like it'll go on forever. It's easy to get momentum from excitement but hope - the slow-burning hope that's real but which demands patience through the decades - is far more difficult to cling onto. Has Jesus really changed anything? Is He just another figure in world history who had His time but is now confined to the history books? In the words of the church's opponents in the first century, "Jesus promised to come again. Where is he? Our fathers have died, but the world continues the way it has been since it was made." (2 Peter 3:4).

These thoughts aren't new. The nagging feeling that David might be right, that Jesus isn't coming back after all, has been with Christians throughout the centuries. For me, there are constructive reasons for hope, however. These are the things worth hanging onto when faith seems stupid.

Firstly, we know that Jesus is coming back because we know that He's alive. I mentioned last time the importance of the resurrection for me and how it's a vital, non-negotiable supporting truth for my faith. For what it's worth, the same was true for the first Christians. Paul wrote that, "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is worth nothing, and your faith is worth nothing." (1 Corinthians 15:14). 1 Corinthians 15 is actually a good example of how that faith functions. Because Jesus has been risen from the dead (v20) it necessarily follows that He will return as judge and king (v23b-28). The resurrection is the great fact that underpins Christian hope: without it there is no hope but with it there is a sure and unshakeable future in store that we can depend on Jesus returning in person to fulfil.

Secondly, we know that Jesus is coming back because He said so. Shaun's word is what helps to maintain Liz's faith in him. If someone promises you something, whether you believe them or not will depend on your assessment of their character. Are they trustworthy? Have they stood by their word in the past? Jesus repeatedly taught that He would return. For instance, He told His followers, "I will not leave you all alone like orphans; I will come back to you" (John 14:18). He's given us a promise; the only question is, 'will we trust Him?'.

This was a big issue for the first Christians. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it's one of the major pastoral concerns of the New Testament (you see this, for example, in 2 Peter 3, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, Hebrews 10:35-39 and Revelation 3:11). Many believers had given up wealth, prestige, jobs and the respect of their family for Jesus. Now it seemed as if His promised return hadn't materialised. A particular concern was what would happen to the Christians who had already died (1 Corinthians 15:17-18, 1 Thessalonians 4:13). The Bible affirms that the passing of time doesn't stop Jesus's return but that it will happen in God's timing and no sooner.

Sometimes it will feel like David is right. Sometimes it will feel like, despite Shaun's heroism in leading away the zombies, he isn't coming back. Sometimes the taunts of the unconvinced will seem louder and more convincing. Sometimes we'll have nothing other than Liz's desperate, relentless retort, "He's coming back". And yet, in a moment, he's there. In the twinkling of an eye, Liz's faith is vindicated. Shaun looks after everyone's welfare and assumes control. Shaun isn't a perfect analogy for Jesus. As it turns out, his return ushers in exactly what David was expecting: eating peanuts in the dark. But he does give us an analogy of what it's like in the waiting.

Shaun didn't come back to life and his character isn't faultless. But we have a God who did and is. And He is coming back.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Why I Am That Awkward Christian

Last summer I was at the Olympics. "Oh", I hear you ask, "what events did you go to?". Well, none. In fact, I saw a great deal less of the Olympic competitions when I was in London than when I was back home watching it on TV. So then why did I give up a week of my summer to go to London 2012? Essentially, to talk to strangers about Jesus.

There's probably a cliché in your head about a socially awkward Christian attempting to share their faith. I almost certainly fulfilled it. I was in a team of other Christians, most of whom (whilst being utterly wonderful people) had very little idea how things like London transport worked. Collectively, we stuck out like a sore thumb. I had official merchandise on (oh yes). I had a matching lanyard and T-shirt and rucksack. Basically, I looked like I was going on a daytrip with the scouts. Christian scouts. If this wasn't exactly boosting my rep or giving me access to once-in-a-lifetime sporting moments, why would I go?

We all know what it's like to be sold something. I was in Morrison's the other day when it was announced that anyone who went to checkout one could receive a free metal potato peeler. I went and hovered nearby, mildly intrigued but not wanting to commit in case there was a catch. A salesman stood up and announced that you'd be given the peeler after listening to his 10-15 minute promotion about a new kind of knife. Some people drifted away. Some lingered. I think everyone was suspicious. This is the feeling you get when a stranger knocks on your door. It's the feeling you get when one of those charity fundraisers catches your eye in the street. Maybe it's the feeling you get when Jesus comes up in a conversation. When we're in these situations we often put up mental barriers because we can't help feeling like the other person wants something from us.

Is this me?

A few weeks ago my university had a Missions Week where the Christian Union put on a series of events designed to help people explore faith in Jesus. It got me thinking about whether talking about God is worth it. So these are two reasons why, in spite of inconvenience and in spite of social awkwardness, I'm convinced that it's a conversation that's utterly worth having.

It's Either True or It's Not

Are you religious? Right now, I honestly don't know. It's not that I'm unsure of whether I'm a Christian, whether I believe in God or whether I know Him in my life. It's that I'm not sure I want the tag. On consideration, I probably don't. For me, being 'religious' comes with the following baggage: dullness, legalism, bureaucracy, an inability to tolerate questions, small-mindedness...did I mention dullness? Sometimes you can add hatred and hostility to the list. I'm sure you can come up with a few of your own. Here's the thing: I don't associate any of them with God. God and religion are two different animals. You can pick your religion but you can't pick whether God's real or not.

Tolerance is king in our society right now. There's undoubtedly a very positive aspect to that: it's obviously good to have respect and to be civil towards people who are different to you. But there's also a very harmful, and completely illogical, consequence to tolerance: we've largely stopped caring about what's true. The attitude is: 'Oh, you're religious. That's cool for you, but it's just not for me'. But seeing God as an optional extra or thinking that religious faith is OK for one person but not for another seems crazy to me.

Either God's there or He's not.

More specifically, either the claims of Christianity are true or they're not. Deciding that you're not a religious kind of person doesn't change reality.

Let me put the following to you: either Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead or He wasn't. He is, at this moment, either alive in heaven reigning as God Himself or disintegrating into dust along with the rest of dead humanity.  If Jesus didn't rise from the dead then I want to walk away from Christianity right now. If He did then I want every other detail of my life to fall idle in comparison with my response to that truth. Which one it is matters supremely. We might use different methods to get to our answer (and all of us, deliberately or implicitly, come to some sort of verdict) but it's got to be worth investigating. Worth demanding answers of. Worth praying over. Worth talking about...

...whether you're religious or not.

Because He's Worth It

To borrow a phrase from L'Oréal...

Ultimately, that won't cut it, though. It's not enough to reflect internally on philosophical possibilities. That won't change us in any real sense or make us willing to tell anyone else about that change. First, let me tell you about the way in which I used to see sharing my faith.

I've seen it in the past as a goal in and of itself. I've thought that evangelism is something I have to do to be a good Christian. That it's somehow one of the things that I'm supposed to be doing. So I've attempted it as a stale exercise of cold-hearted obedience. I've identified friends as targets and tried to drag them to an event or impart some religious information to them as part of a stage-managed operation. I've attempted to spread Jesus by force leaves me feeling unsatisfied and it doesn't work.

Obligation is a terrible motivator. You'll only ever really carry out an obligated duty because you have to. Often you won't care how good a job you did. That you've completed what you were expected to do is enough. Your heart isn't in it. This is how sharing my faith has often been for me. But it misses a key, if obvious, point: we're motivated to share what we care about. If you're truly passionate about something then you can't help but share it: it's infectious. I'll probably never know, but I suspect that this is what a girly coffee date feels like. Not being able to not share something because it's so exciting: 'You won't believe when you hear'. I think that recovering this sense of knowing that God's worthwhile is essential: it's the only proper reason why anyone would ever want to share Him.

The irony is that I'm convinced that God gives me the best possible life. Jesus once said, "I came to give life - life in all its fullness" (John 10:10). Jesus is saying that He isn't like the seedy knife salesman who tries to make you sign up for something you don't really need. He isn't out to exploit you. He offers the best quality of life there is. This is my experience. This is my life story. It's about an uncontainable, substantial, ever-present, unshakeable, smile-on-your-face-putting contentment. If that isn't worth sharing then I don't know what is.

There's a story in the Old Testament about a city that's surrounded by a foreign army. There's a siege and the people inside are starving to death. Four guys eventually decide that surrender is as good as starvation and go to hand themselves over. When they get to the enemy camp they find it deserted: the army's abandoned their position in a hurry. Four lean, hungry men come across hundreds of tents full of food, and they gorge themselves. Then they suddenly take stock of their situation and say,

"We're doing wrong. Today we have good news, but we are silent. If we wait until the sun comes up, we'll be discovered. Let's go right now and tell the people in the king's palace."
 2 Kings 7:9

This is why I deliberately try to share my faith. This is why (although I'm not as good as I should be at speaking out in the first place) I refuse to keep my mouth shut. This is why I want to ignore social expectations and conventions in order to speak. This is why I'm more than happy to be that awkward Christian. The point isn't whether I'm 'religious' or not. The point isn't whether I'm obligated to speak. The point isn't even that there are hungry people who need the food that I have. The point is that I'm so full - so completely and utterly satisfied. And that's totally worth sharing.

Guess what? I'd actually love to chat to you about it. Just send me a message.