Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Black Dog and The White Dog

CD in Play: Johnny Cash, American IV - The Man Comes Around.& Unearthed Disc 3, Redemption Songs.

I have been listening to a lot of Johnny Cash of late, the American Recordings releases. When I first bought them, they moved me deeply. Listening to them now they move me deeper still. It's been just over three years since Mr. Cash died but his music stands strong, vital and important. His music has reconnected me to my faith in a way.
I walked away from the Church (but not the Faith) in 1994, sick of institutionalized Christianity and tired of what I saw there. I had attended a church called Willingdon Mennonite Brethren. It was MB in name only, desperately trying to become just another generic "culturally relevant" Evangelical Church. Sunday mornings were being simplified and stripped down in order to make the "seeker services". But really, in all my time in church I rarely saw many non-believers come walking through the doors on their own.
Sermons were watered down, kept basic on the assumption it would please the uninitiated. As a result, Bible studies were where the flock were supposed to get into the deeper stuff. A fine theory, but it left a lot of lay people to their own devices. The Church isn't referred to a flock for nothing - sheep left alone apparently have a tendency to graze over a spot well beyond the point they should. One of the jobs of a shepherd is to keep the flock moving to new grounds: Willingdon's flock had become stagnant and the shepherds were too busy trying to be "culturally relevant" and "seeker" friendly to notice and much of the flock just kept grazing in familier territory. It seemed that the head pastor at that time felt the mark of his abilities as a pastor was was in the quantity of his flock, quality never seeming to enter the equation.
But this wasn't just a problem with Willingdon, it has been a persistent illness within Protestant/Evangelical circles. I went to a church some friends' of mine go to fairly recently. There was some perceptible disappointment on the faces of the people their when they learned I was "one of them". They wanted fresh meat not meat that was well-seasoned and, perhaps, slightly off.
The sermon was watered down, kept simple for the sake of the newer believers. It was on the the Poetic Books and Books of Wisdom: Song of Songs/Solomon, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes. (there are two others, Sirach and Wisdom, but Protestants don't accept them as canonical) As a gimmick they these large over-sized books (approx 7ft tall) which the pastor would pull out and open to show an outline of each books content. There were also a PowerPoint Presentation with lots of nature pictures, etc. to accompany the points the pastor was making.
So what does all this have to do with Johnny Cash, right? Another facet of the modern Church that I loathe is its music. Worship is an industry. Sure guys like Bach made a living at it, but the people making money to write worship music ain't Bach and, in my opinion, don't give a damn about craft or artistry. Like a lot of things in Western society, modern worship music is fast, easy, safe and (to my mind) disposable.
What I like about Cash's religious material, both his originals and covers, is that they are often songs written from a painful place. Songs like "Help Me" (a Larry Gatlin song) "I Came to Believe" are written from places that aren't easy to be, but places that become an integral part of who you are once you have been there. Cash once talked about the black dog and the white dog in an interview. He said that the black dog was in its cage and the white dog was sitting in the yard now, but he could still hear the black dog howling, hear it rattling the cage trying to get out. Sometimes it does.
Another way of looking at it would be through the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The things we have done wrong weigh against us, maybe even killed portions of our soul. And there is a sound we hear that drives, but we can never get away from it: it is relentless. Coming clean helps, but we always hear at least an echo of things we had done wrong before,
Modern Christianity doesn't like to reflect on pain or sorrow, it has become too suburban and middle class for that sort of discomfort. Modern Christianity is about cocooning, setting up barriers and buffers to keep unpleasantness out. Once you're one of the anointed appointed you've earned the right to be one of the 24 hour party people sitting in the God's Grace Marathon Love-In of Hope, right? One pastor on television apparently stated that the Gospel is the Road to Wealth. God wants His people to be happy and blessed. right? Eventually, yes but not now and not here.
Life, in its totality, is not wholly suffering, but it is a significant and important part of it. Happiness and contentedness is very often illusory and lasts only when we stop thinking, get with the programme and conform. Often times our happiness is really just a state of denial. It is an empty vapid existence, is it any wonder that Sunday worship has been tailored to reflect said existence? People tell me hymns are too old or too complicated, they don't reach people. I also hear people say that they are hackneyed and worn out. Hymns are not too old: hell, name one hymn that even comes close to being as old as the Bible? Is the Bible worn out and hackneyed? Should we update it for the times? Does the Bible need to made culturally relevant? If you believe then the answer is no. Islam is anything but culturally relevant and it is the fastest growing religion in the world, so what does that tell you?
If we updated the Bible for our times what would we lose? Consider what Western culture really offers and think about it, the answer should scare you. If hymns are worn out and hackneyed than lazy or unadventurous music directors and congregations are to blame. So many churches trod over the same hymns again and again. The average hymnal is pretty big and I would guess that the average congregation sings, at most, 10% of it.
Are hymns too complicated or we just too lazy to try? They were good enough for the older generations so why not us? Isn't worship of one's Deity worth putting some effort into? Hymns are emotionally engaging when you get into them and read the lyrics. As I said about Cash's work, they are often written from a darker place. Hymns may magnify the glory of God, but they don't seem to shy away from acknowledging the human condition. One hymn moved me, almost to tears. I cannot remember the name and have only heard it once. The writer had written it after losing his family one after another to tragedy.
Johnny's music moves me to and reminds me of my faith in God and that I am not alone. A large portion of Christianity has lost touch with its soul, lives in fear of the world outside. The Bible says we are to live in the World but not be of the World. I think my friends' Gavin and Maria and Pete and Deanna church manages to that. The attend an Eastern Right Orthodox Church, St. Herman of Alaska. Eastern Orthodoxy (much like Islam) is culturally irrelevant, yet Orthodoxy has made significant gains in the past decade. Many Evangelicals seem to me to of the World but not really in it. They have removed themselves and set up a bizarre fun house reflection of Western Culture to follow. That is something I just can't be a part of.
I don't know if any of this makes sense, but it was something I finally had to unload onto the blog.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Alec Linden said...

I came across you blog while browsing. No church is perfect, I think you need to suck it up and stick it out. From reading some of your other posts it sounds to me like you are way overdue to return.
How do you propose the church reach out to the community? If it isn't "culturaly relevent" then why would anyone join? Islam makes gains in countries where that ideology is familiar, similar.as for the orthodox, I haven't exactly seen a whole bunch of onion domes springing up all over the place, but maybe things are different where you are from.

24 December, 2006 13:32  
Blogger Magnus said...

You're right about there being no perfect church and maybe I do need to suck it up. However, I don't think I am wrong and I think the Western churches need to wake up, open theie eyes and rethink the direction they are headed.
According to Persians and Kurds and non-Muslim Pakistanis I have met, Islam largely perpetuates the Arabic culture. (language and modes of dress come to mind) Caucasian Europeans and North Americans have coverted and are converting to Islam, so I think your argument falls flat.
The Orthodox have made gains, not enormous, but significant gains. Many Evangelicals have left their denominations and become Orthodox for the richness of the liturgy and to be a part of the oldest Christian Church around. (or because they married into it ;)
As Evangelicals just become mirror images of what people see everywhere else around them, what is the insentive to switch? What difference are Christians actually offering?

24 December, 2006 22:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magnus there is I believe a whole
lot of truth in what you are saying. Hope you will persue this
further.

26 December, 2006 12:51  
Blogger Magnus said...

Why thank you, anonymous stranger. ;)

30 December, 2006 02:41  
Anonymous Trent said...

You know, there's about a billion people who are on the fringe of Christian culture that have been saying the same thing as you are. So much so that it is not really a fringe thing anymore.

The thing is, the church is not the building. The church is not even what happens inside the building. The church is the body of believers. The church as institution is something that needs to be nailed to a wall and shot a few times. And there are way too many people who externalize their faith, and buy into the church as building/church as event style of religion.

However, even Jim Baker's son is saying basically what you're saying. So it shouldn't be so hard for you to connect to a group of like-minded Christians. There are black churches. There are white churches (better music in the former). Heck. There are even gay churches. I don't think finding a group of fed-up-with-the-religion-of-christianity-while-still-believing-in-Christ type people would be that hard.

I think your trouble is is that your not looking. Much easier to sit on the outside and pretend to be an outcast. I know. I've been there. 12-20 were basically that for me. Even now, X year's later (where x is equal to my current age, minus a variable of between and including 12 and 20), I still find myself setting myself apart.

And if you think the body of Christ needs to open its eyes, maybe part of the problem is that you, the eye, have cut itself off from the body, leaving it blinded.

Maybe your lot in life is not to teach children art. Maybe it is to teach the body of Christ how to see. Maybe you need a couple more years back at Caronport to get your pastor's degree, or whatever piece of paper they hand out.

02 January, 2007 11:48  
Anonymous david said...

From what I know of Magnus, which isn't much, I would say he was too much of a gadfly for most churches.

02 January, 2007 18:35  
Blogger Magnus said...

Trent, you can say there are a billion people out there on the fringe but if they don't speak up who's going to know? To be frank, I do not think I am wanted. I am a bit of a gadfly, and that is something I just cannot help. (had to look that one up to see if the context fits. it does) I have been troubling people since a least the age of four. As for becoming a pastor, absolutely no way - just another exercise in futility.

02 January, 2007 20:34  
Anonymous Trent said...

A song about the original Christian Gadfly:

hell oh
is anyone here?
you don't
get the picture
hell glows
bright and clear

and i'm just a cynic
talkin' 'bout a white bleached sepulcher
i'm bringin' ants to your picnic
they're feeding on a dead man's bones

count down to tribulation, oh
oh, oh, oh

hell oh
isn't it clear?
have i
failed to tell you
heaven
is oh so near

there once was a cynic
talkin' 'bout a white bleached sepulcher
i'm the bee at your picnic
who stung you 'till you had to run home

count down occupation oh
oh, oh, oh, well

oh, oh, oh,
hell oh
is anyone here?
you don't
get the picture
hell glows
bright and clear

and i'm just a cynic
talkin' 'bout a white bleached sepulcher
bringin' ants to your picnic
they're feeding on a dead man's bones

count down to salvation, oh
oh, oh, oh

hello? is anyone here?
hello? is anyone here?

03 January, 2007 20:20  
Anonymous Trent said...

You seem to have missed my point. I wasn't saying go ye therefore and speak out on the hypocrisy in the church. I said go ye therefore, and surround yourself with...not like minded people necessarily, but other disenfranchised Christians. Find these people, and fellowship with them.

Don't lock yourself in your room, then cry "oh, woe is me, for I am all alone". You can't cry outcast if you're the one walking out the door.

Go. Change the church. And be change by it, into the likeness of Christ. Don't focus on what's wrong in the church, focus on Christ. If you get persecuted for that, so be it. (Now, if you get persecuted for being an ass, that's a whole other story....)

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

03 January, 2007 21:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it is a question of him not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member?

04 January, 2007 00:42  

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