The Black Dog and The White Dog
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.