You see, of course, my dilemma.

So I’m listening to the Writing Excuses Season Capstone, and I’m starting to realize why I’ve never become a professional writer: I have too many hobbies. I have a lot of things I’m interested in and I do well enough at them naturally that I could have chosen any one of them to pursue professionally, but only at the expense of dropping all the others. I sing and dance; I play guitar; I write fiction and non-; I study theology and economics… but none of those turn into money, except at a very high level of development.

Developing one means dropping all the others and taking a gamble, and it’s a gamble I’ve never been willing to take. Which is odd, because I’m not particularly risk adverse. But I am proud. Too proud, for instance, to stay in my parents house for a decade, pursuing a career that might not work out. To proud to risk being accused of failure to launch.

So what have I done instead? I picked the one interest that had low barriers to entry, and easy to monetize early: sitting at a desk, organizing stuff. Small fame there, but a decent paycheck. And that’s how I became the Army Sustainment Officer I am today. It turns out my most lucrative calling is to be a bureaucrat.

That doesn’t erase the itch to accomplish something more… refined? with my life. It just steals a certain chunk of my time. So I am even now looking into refining the roughage out of the remaining hours that I have, so I can set aside time to do pursue one of my old affections. I’m going to have to shove aside one or two of my big three weekend and evening pursuits: church involvement, Facebook, and being a dad.

It could be a Hegelian thing.

I expected to read this article on the decline of contemporary praise and worship with a certain level of amusement and agreement.  Radio-style praise and worship, especially over the last 20 years has been terribly full of fluff, and the sooner done with it we are, the better.  However, I found the article to be singularly unhelpful.  Our options aren’t hymns or performance-oriented radio fluff.

I’m a huge fan of hymns. But the great musical innovation of the last century is syncopation, and that is something that has to affect our church music like it affects everything else.  The problem with most classic hymns (the best ones – I’m discounting the truly dreadful stuff) is that the meter overwhelmed the lyrics.  Even at the time they were written, nobody ever talked that way.  But nobody seemed to know  how to put together a song that flowed like a person actually talking, let alone appropriately moved by the words they were saying.

That’s the gap that CWM filled: simple songs with simple truths that sound like an actual person talking.  And modern hymnodists have taken the hint.  How Deep the Father’s Love sounds nothing like O For a Thousand Tongues.  I doubt that any new song can be completely devoid of syncopation ever again.  Why would it?

I’ll confess that CWM has been declining for the last 20 years at least.  It had to – it was being canned for people to put on the radio, and radio just isn’t a good medium for music intended for congregational singing.  But there’s an iceberg of modern worship music that never made it to the radio, dating back at least to 1900.  There’s good stuff in there, none of it hymns, and lots of it at least as durable.  Is that stuff declining too?  Or is congregational worship music simply maturing?

Lived or Existed

Since then, I have lived or existed as one does at School. How dreary it all is! I could make some shift to put up with the work, the discomfort, and the school feeding: such inconveniences are only to be expected. But what irritates me more than anything else is the absolute lack of appreciation of anything like music or books which prevails among the people whom I am forced to call my companions. Can you imagine what it is like to live for twelve long weeks among boys whose thoughts never rise above the dull daily round of cricket and work and eating?

C.S.Lewis, to Arthur Greeves, 5 June 1914

Be Thou My Vision

In my ongoing attempt to find something meaningful to do with my life, I’ve taken up making worship lead sheets. I found a lovely program called lilypond that allows you to write sheet music in a programming language, and then spits it out as perfectly arranged sheet music. It’s supposed to be able to generate individual snippets of music that you can throw in to a web page, but that function is buried in an exceptionally bad user interface.

Anyway, I knocked out “Be Thou My Vision” today. First I copied from a hymnal and put in the proper lyrics (hymnals in the 80s and 90s had a terrible habit of arbitrarily changing lyrics, usually for the worse). Then I realized that wasn’t how I play the song on guitar. Guitar strumming has a tendency to pull everything… syncopated So we worked out how to play Be Thou in 9/8 time.

And here’s the completed product:

Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision (syncopated)

UPDATE: It turns out that the guitar’s tendency to syncopate has something to do with my complete inability to play in ¾ time. Here’s what I’m actually playing:

Be Thou My Vision (syncopated)

Something missing

A Classical Education designer talks about the classical approach to math and science.  It seems like he’s missing something, though, because his theories on teaching it better sound an awful lot like what I’ve heard about the Common Core Curriculum – prioritizing the idea over the execution. I think it’s because he forgets the magic word – Trivium!

Or it may just be that he’s forgetting that most of science is actually history, the same way that most of music composition is actually piano practice.

Like a B-Rate Romance

Trying to sift through your music library can have strange effects on you.

For instance, I’m coming around to the fact that I will spend the rest of my life, to some extent, as a reactionary. I seem to have a hugely negative response to points of view I used to have, but have no longer. In other words, I’ve actually changed my mind about some things, and now the things I used to love, I hate. So I run up against some of my old way of viewing the world, and I’m set on a rampage to argue with my former self, to set him to rights about the world.

I can’t tell if I’m preaching to the choir, or arguing with an intractable opponent. Sometimes my old self seems to agree with me quickly, and catches up to my current state of mind. But at the same time, I see my past self continuing to think the old way – because he’s in the past. Internal dialogue has never been a very effective means of time travel.

Here’s my current diatribe: emotions. I’m totally for them, but I have some concerns. The funny thing about emotions is their relationship with reality. Emotions themselves are real – as emotions, that is. If you’re angry or sad, you really are angry or sad, and it would be silly for someone to tell you otherwise. But emotions have only a vague correlation to the rest of the world as it really is. I mean, if you’re hot and sweaty, the most likely reason is that it’s hot out. Other options include the possibility that you’ve been working out, or that you have a fever, which means that you are sick. If you are physically in pain, chances are that you’ve been wounded in some way. Not so with emotions. If I’m sad, the world is not necessarily a sad place. Something truly saddening may have happened to me – my dog may have died. Or it could be that I’ve thought of something sad that happened 20 years ago. Or I could be reading a book. I have every reason to expect that my emotions are not connected to any real situation in the external world.

Most people are aware of this at some level, though from talking to people, you might think otherwise. There’s a terrible tendency for people to think that their emotions are perfect lodestones to point them in the direction of right and wrong. My emotions are holy. So-and-so made me feel a certain way, therefore so-and-so owes it to me to correct my emotions for me. I myself bear no responsibility for how I feel, and what’s more, how I feel is the most perfect description of who I am! Down that path, darkness lies.

This leads to another concept: Emotions, because they are so easily affected by imaginary situations, are extremely malleable. With a little practice, I can control how I feel. (More wickedly, with a little practice, I can even control how other people feel.) Now this is an idea that really appeals to my personality. It just so happens that I have extremely strong, extremely stable emotions.

I once decided that some issues at work dictated that I should get angry more often. It took me about two weeks to get there, and then I stayed on the cusp of rage for the better part of a month, before I decided it wasn’t a very effective tactic. So I turned it off. More stupidly, when I was in junior high school, my version of oggling the girls was to attempt to analyse their personalities and imagine how much I would have to adjust my own personality in order to get on as a couple… and how long I could keep it up before it wasn’t worth the effort. Of course, I fell for the girl I couldn’t “read”. It went badly.

Most people don’t spend much time working their emotions like an Adonis at the gym. But there is a huge industry of “personal trainers” who will tell you how to adjust your emotions so that you can be in tune with yourself and handle difficult situations better. So, when I was growing up, there were always books floating around the house with tips on how to handle certain emotions. I think that’s where I picked up the concept that certain emotions are always good, and other emotions are always bad. Anger is always bad. Peacefulness is always good. Shame is always bad. Brassiness is always good. That’s the idea I bought as a kid, that ended in catastrophe, and now I hates it forever.

See, in the churches I grew up in, spiritual ecstacy was an emotion that fell in the category of “always good.” Every other emotion, aside from perhaps general happiness and peacefulness, was a curse from the enemy and ought to be “broken off” from the afflicted saint. At first blush, this sounds like a good idea. I mean, name a Christian who is against spiritual ecstacy. On the other hand, imagine a community where most everyone enters into a state of spiritual ecstacy on a regular basis, where fear and doubt and shame are signs of something deep and intrensically wrong with you. I hope you can see where this is going. Keep in mind that I am pretty darn good at setting my emotions on a goal and hitting that goal regularly for long periods of time. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that a fiercely emotional prayer life doesn’t necessarily lead to successful relationships, improved character, or even a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

I burned out pretty hard.

I Just couldn’t do it any more. And then came the strange enui of being unable to relate to people around me (still on their spiritual highs), or find confidence in the God of my salvation. I knew emotions were shaky things, and yet I had managed to set my entire identity in my consistent experience of certain emotions. As the kids say these days, epic fail!

Putting myself back together again took a bit of work, and involved revamping my entire theology, worldview, personal goals, dating preferences, the works. Even now sometimes, I feel a little bit like Calvin Coolidge when the young lady told him she had made a bet with a friend that she could get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” he said. People try to get me riled up about something and… I don’t rile. Please submit your reasons why I should feel this emotion on form 3215-B, in triplicate, and come back to me in a week. By then I’ll have decided whether or not to feel… offended, was it? Anyway, I’ll get back to you. Surprise holidays are a real pain. So are goodbyes.

Understand, I’m not a wooden, emotionless guy. But, “I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.” There a lot going on up in here, and external inputs on how I ought to feel are a real distraction.

So, music. Again, I’m totally for it, but I have some concerns. Music has one truly great function: to direct and amplify the emotions. It’s wonderful stuff, unless you shiv it like a sledgehammer. I keep running across stuff that I think I was supposed to like ten years ago, but now it hits me like a B-rate romance. IT’S TIME TO FEEL PASSIONATE, BECAUSE WE’RE MAKING LONG EMOTIONAL SOUNDS!!!!!1! Yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s a sound that’s supposed to happen when two people, who love each other very much, are alone together. It is not a sound I want to hear at church, and It’s not a sound I want to suddenly come on my stereo while I’m trying to get the kids to help set the dinner table. That’s a sound they’ll figure out on their own. When they’re older. I don’t really need to explain right now why is she making that sound, papa.

As the Preacher said, there’s a time for everything, and every emotion under the sun has its place. Music is there to help us get to the right emotions. I just don’t have any use for music that tries to force my emotions into a groove that isn’t exactly appropriate to the circumstances, or even the context of the song. It isn’t powerful; it’s just annoying. Give me thick, clear-headed stuff. Give me something with a reason.

Not even worthy of a decent stalker love song

A few months ago I finally realized that I didn’t like 30-40% of the 6000 some songs on my iPod. So I’ve been slowly going through and deleting things. Part of what that’s done is to force me to think more analytically about my music.

A lot of my stuff is contemporary style worship music, with B+ music and C lyrics. Not bad, unless you play 1000 of them in a row. Then you start to pick out certain trends. So many songs that declare how great God is, because he’s “holy” or “mighty” or “amazing.” Really? How about some details.

But the one that’s really starting to get to me are all the ones that aren’t about God at all. They’re really songs about me, or at least about the person singing. “You make me feel…” “I love you so much!” “I desire you!” “I’m filled with all this passion…” Again, no details, just vague descriptions of passing emotions. Sentiments like that are not even worthy of a decent stalker love song. Why would I want to sing a worship song like that?

One of the things that has led to a major change in my taste in music is a kind of a change in my understanding of the meaning of life, or as the theologians would say, “the chief end of man.”

I still remember a conversation I had once with a girl I was trying to evangelize. I was trying to explain to her that the highest expression of human life was found in relationship. Hell is being separated from God, and Heaven is the crowning expression of ultimate intimacy with God. Man was created primarily to be in relationship with Him,and we couldn’t be happy unless we were in relationship with Him and with each other.

“But,” she said, “I remember lots of times when I played alone as a kid, and I was perfectly happy then.” I was stumped. What was I to say, no you weren’t happy? It was a fake happy? Come to think of it, I’m usually happy to be alone too. Hell isn’t loneliness. There must be something more to it. But I couldn’t think of where it was.

Some years later, I was exposed to the reformation idea of the glory of God. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and thoroughly enjoy Him forever.” And while I think there’s some error, for instance in the unbiblical idea that Jesus died primarily with the glory of God in mind (“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”), I think it’s closer to the truth to say that God made the world for his glory, rather than for relationship. It even becomes clearer when you define “glory” as “the full expression of God’s character,” instead of as simply “fame.”

One of the reasons why I think glory makes for a better definition of our purpose than relationship is that you can see that relationship fits in as a part of the character of God (He is three-in-one), but you can’t really make glory a subset of relationship. So also in human relations: character trumps intimacy.

This has to affect the songs we sing in church. If the chief purpose of a man is to be in a relationship, then the closeness of that relationship will be more important than the concrete attributes of the God you are in relationship with. To put it in pejorative terms, if Jesus died because he couldn’t stand to be separated from me, then my songs are going to be about my experience of how close we are now. I’m going to focus on those sensations that are the most trustworthy proof that I am fulfilling my ultimate purpose. Of course, when those sensations aren’t there, there is quite literally hell to pay in the vacancy.

On the other hand, If my chief purpose is to demonstrate in minute detail the complex and awe-inspiring character of the living God, then how “close” I am to God becomes almost irrelevant. How do you measure “close”, feelings? Feelings are a weak, splintered staff. You can’t lean on them without being wounded. More important will be the nature of that God. The cross splits the universe down the middle, braiding holy judgment and compassionate grace with a sovereignty that is so awesome as to be terrifying. Who has understood the mind of the Lord?

I do still think there’s a place for “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. David says, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” And again, “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” But the focus even there is on the God for whom he is panting, not on the glory of panting in itself, as though desire itself conferred righteousness. Those feelings come as a gift, and sometimes in His sovereignty He doesn’t give them, or gives holy emotions that we’d just as soon not experience. In those times, my hope needs to be in the good news of the cross, the sure knowledge of who He is, and what He has done for me.

The texture of worship comes from the God who is being worshiped. Generic songs imply a generic god, and songs painted only in broad emotional brush-strokes imply a god who is primarily interested in my feelings. Not only is a god like that unsatisfying, it’s profoundly disappointing when it doesn’t stand up to reality.