Why we Sing

I rejected my faith once. It happened in the middle of a two-week Christian camp. While surrounded by others who exploded in their devotion to this Christian God, I stood as a doubter, seemingly alone in my heresy.

I don’t know if I’d ever felt that kind of loneliness before. Not even the calculated callousness of high school had managed to wake in me the chasm that I then felt between me and my fellow man. Nothing bites quite so hard as others’ fulfilment scratching at the glass of your emptiness.

You see, I had discovered that I had never before really taken a long hard look at my faith. Oh, I’d given it a cursory glance now and then, but never stared unflinchingly at its make-up, open to whatever I might find. What I discovered was that I did not have any first principles for my belief in the God of the Bible. I saw the coherence of the Christian Ethical framework; I could wholeheartedly agree with its picture of Humanity; I could see the life Jesus advocated and agree that, yes, this is the best way to be human.

But I could not tell you it’s true. I had embarked on a Cartesian voyage of doubt to try and find the origins of my faith and I had discovered that I could not muster up a single argument that I couldn’t take both sides on. I was at once a Christian and an Atheist.

I think that the discovery of apologetics saved me. I realised that there were men who’d fought the same fights as I had. They had spent their lives pondering the great mysteries and could give some kind of philosophical rigour to what had hitherto been an emotionally based intellectual pursuit. I could shake of this inconstant faith and step onto a more solid base.

With my discovery of philosophy and apologetics came my distrust and rejection of all things emotional. I had always tried to be as rational as possible, and had now found a methodology by which it could be done. I had discovered the enlightenment.

I distrusted church services. They seemed geared towards the manipulation of emotions. People sang, not because they loved God or believed what they sang, but because the band was awesome. The group instinct drove them to greater passion, together singing four lines over and over again. The mantra of the frenzied.

It seems that you create ghosts to replace the demons that you banish. With the advent of rationality I had lost my wonder. The analytical impulse is not helped by emotion, which causes trees to become fountains of green against the blue of a summer sky rather than collections of leaves and wood. Music became an instrument of manipulation. As a songwriter myself, I knew it intimately. Music is hardwired into your reptile brain.

The rediscovery of wonder came from many avenues, but mostly it came in a little package that would later become my wife. Jana once again opened my eyes to see that there is more than can be quantified. There is life to be discovered and revelled in.

I realised why we sing. We sing because we are forgetful. In the wandering pathways of our brains, we lose the colour of what we once knew in in our hearts and our minds. Knowledge that once stirred in our chests becomes dull, featureless fact.

So we sing. There is something in art that brings you back to what you know in your core. It chimes in a way that resonates in your spine while whispering to your mind. We sing, not because it stirs in us a memory of what we used to feel, but because it makes us feel those emotions all over again. We can again know the wonder of Grace and Love as if confronted for the first time. We can dance to what we affirm in our most sober of states.

I still believe in rationality. Religion is too important to be left to something as fickle as your feelings. People should never stop thinking about what they believe and why they believe it. Manipulation and delusion so easily dog the steps of the faithful.

But we should also not stop feeling. In the whirling dance of our hearts and minds we can find the calm centre where we come together as truly human and almost divine.

And then we truly sing.

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Missing The Point: An Exercise In Zeal

Passion so blindly fuels our lives. We humans revel in the words of the enthused like lizards in the sun. We idolise those who can chase their goals with single-minded determination, writing and reading biographical tomes with the relish of a glutton at a buffet.

Nowhere is passion as wildly followed as in religion. The religious impulse has, after all, an inherent need for some kind of existential connection to the subject matter.

Now, if Christianity is true, that is obviously the correct attitude to take. If any religion is true, the only legitimate reaction would be one of total immersion. Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear others when you’re underwater.

A recent example is the backlash that North Point pastor Andy Stanley received on his April 15th sermon. Now I need to insert a disclaimer here: I have not heard the sermon. I am not commenting on the message itself. What tickled me was one of the reactions to this sermon.

Andy Stanley was supposedly delivering a message about loving like Jesus. About how messy grace can be when confronted with the real world’s complexity. Probably already stepping on a few toes there, but not the most challenging part of the sermon, it seems. The backlash came when he used the example of a husband who left his wife for a man. When the gay couple took up leadership positions, Andy asked them to step down, since the one partner was still married.

“This is just good old fashioned adultery,” Stanley told the other man. “You’re in a sexual relationship with someone else’s husband.”

The man protested, saying his partner was almost divorced.

“You can’t be almost divorced,” Stanley told him. “You’re married or you’re not. As long as he’s married, you can’t serve on a guest services team.”

–Christianity Today Magazine.

Stanley used the reconciliation between the wife, her daughter, her boyfriend’s family, and the gay couple as an example of the messy and painful process of grace. It’s not perfect. It’s not fun or easy, but here’s a group of people trying to sort themselves out and love each other like Jesus.

I found it resonating quite strongly with me. The Bible doesn’t shy away from the complexities of life. People are shown screwing up in the most horrific ways imaginable; they’re shown trying to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. A big part of the point of making your holy book a book of stories is that lists of rules very quickly break down when confronted with life. Jesus explores this masterfully in the parable of the good Samaritan. Which incidentally happens to be a story too.

So when people start bashing the pastor because he “missed a key opportunity to address homosexuality,” I start losing my mind. Have they been listening to the point of the sermon? It’s not about whether homosexuality is or is not wrong. That’s such a messy subject in itself that you could do a whole sermon series on it and still not plumb the debate’s true depth. And anyway, how is who the man is sleeping with a bigger issue than the fact that it’s not his wife? Actually, whether the partner should be allowed to serve as a leader is also a giant can of worms in itself. Potholes abound.

When we believe so strongly in something, it sometimes blinds us to the rest of the world. I realise this, because I have seen it in myself time and again. We tend to nit pick little things that bug us until we lose the plot completely. This is the problem with a lot of fundamentalists. They forget that, in the end, it’s not about a six-day creation or whether Noah really lived. It’s about Jesus. The zealous focus on (possibly very important) theological points often blinds us to the greater ones right in front of our noses.

If Stanley needs to talk about homosexuality, does that mean that a pastor has a duty to include every possible theological question that could arise from a given sermon? Down that road lies madness. It would necessitate a full systematic theology of the whole Bible in every single sermon.

I don’t mean to demean what is a burning topic for many Christians today. I don’t know what Andy Stanley’s position on the matter is. Truth be told, I don’t really care that much. He was pointing to Jesus and the implications of following Him. He was showing light in a situation that often breeds escalating darkness. He was trying to help us understand what it means to love each other unselfishly. To obey the great commandment.

Anything else would just have been a distraction.

Or am I just being blind?

Crutches

We are so strong. We have it all so together. Just ask the media. The movies always know best.

I love hiking. There’s something so unbelievably pure about being in the mountains with nothing but the pack on your back. Even the sweating you do to get there somehow seems… right. The only way to get to the best places is by pushing yourself.

I went hiking a while ago. Along with the provisions and gear, I took with me a minor injury. While it started out as just a nuisance, as the mountains grew, so did the pain. Knowing that it would just get worse if I kept putting strain on it, I did the right thing and manned the hell up.

Which means I kept on going without making a sound. Well, maybe making a little, just so people around me would ask what’s wrong, giving me the chance to look cool. Silent suffering is seriously awesome, guys. Just taking a little weight off my back would have helped a lot. No one would even have thought badly of me for doing this. The only thing that kept me from stopping and asking for the help I needed was my pride. Because it is weak to ask for help when we need it, even if we know we are destroying ourselves.

Just keep telling yourself that you’re strong. Just keep your head down and push through the pain. Just bite down and huck it. Don’t deal with the problems and don’t deal with the symptoms. Above all, don’t show it. It’s the mantra of our modern existence. We’re so afraid of appearing weak that it’s bordering on delusion.

The reality is that we can’t always be strong. Sometimes we need help to bear things that would be impossible to cope with alone. If someone broke their leg and refused a cast and crutches, we’d say they’re stupid. Yet we do it every day.
We get broken sometimes. It’s not even always our fault. And we sometimes need help, because nobody is strong enough to face everything alone. It’s the reality of our messy life that we sometimes need support to lean on while we get better.

Of course Christianity is a crutch. If it wasn’t, it couldn’t possibly be true.