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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Music and Meaning

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Editor’s note:

We asked Harold Best and Ken Myers the same three questions:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

Click here for Best’s answers. Myers answers the questions not specifically but broadly:


In a letter written in 1955, Flannery O’Connor remarked, “If you live today you breathe in nihilism….It’s the gas you breathe.” She went on to observe that she would have been perfectly content in this condition “if I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it.”

Almost sixty years later, the cultural atmosphere in which we live suffers from a much more intense state of toxicity. But many church leaders have not grown in the wisdom necessary for recognizing the forms our nihilism takes. Their churches are neither reliable allies in the fight against nihilism nor trustworthy tutors concerning the need for combat. One sign of their failure is the widespread assumption—evident in worship practices and the defense thereof—that musical forms are neutral and meaningless. Insisting that music is inherently meaningless, that all meaning in music is arbitrarily assigned, that only the words in songs provide meaning, and that true words can be suitably attached to any musical expression, is very close to saying that the universe itself is meaningless. Defenders of such claims are unwitting allies of nihilism, not its adversaries.

Postmodern nihilism is not conveyed so much by propositional claims that address the reason as by cultural forms that shape the imagination. Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning. Paul’s command that we avoid cultural conformity and seek transformation by the renewing of our minds is not limited to honing the logical processes of deduction. It involves a more ancient understanding of the working of the mind, which included training the imagination and intuition as organs of meaning, linked to the powers of perception through the senses.

In that pre-Enlightenment understanding of the mind, music—ordered form aurally perceived—was understood to be meaningful because Creation was ordered by the Logos. In singing or hearing an ascending melody, for example, one was experiencing something of the nature of ascent. Ascending and descending are realities known in space and time that somatically represent realities beyond space and time. Heights and depths physically experienced—climbing mountains or falling into pits—are meaningful before one rationally analyzes the meaning. All of the vertical metaphors in Scripture—for example, setting our minds on things that are above (Col. 3:2), esteeming those over us in the Lord highly (1 Thess. 5:12), the ascent of incense, hands, and prayers (Ps. 141:2), and so on—rely on the experienced knowledge of ascending and descending. Such knowledge is expressed and experienced in artistic forms seen and heard as well as in more active, tactile activities.

Much musical meaning—like much verbal meaning—is metaphoric. In Psalm 19, the desirability of God’s precepts is compared to gold and their sweetness to honey. We know what that means because we have seen and touched gold and tasted honey. The meaning of those sensory encounters—a meaning we knew before we reasoned about it—provides the basis for the meaning of the propositional claims of the psalmist. The meaning of gold or honey is ineffable, but it is not imaginary or capricious. God created gold and bees to grant us access to a form of knowledge that goes beyond words, but on which words depend.

God similarly created us and the world we live in so that the sound caused by vibrations is perceived as having metaphoric (usually spatial or tactile) qualities. We speak of people with a smooth or a raspy voice, or we refer to the sound of some instruments as mellow and others as harsh. Some harmonies are perceived as close or tight, some melodic lines as open or airy. We have also been created with a musical sense, a capacity for expression and experience of metamorphic meaning through melody, harmony, rhythm, sound texture, and musical form.

The forms of musical expression in any given culture often reflect the reigning assumptions in that culture about reality generally and the human condition specifically. Musical genres of the sixteenth century, for example, are more adept at conveying complex and mysterious realities. Jacob Handl’s Nativity anthem, “Mirabile mysterium,” proclaims: “A wondrous mystery is declared today, an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man; that which he was, he remains, and that which he was not, he takes on, suffering neither commixture nor division.” The musical vocabulary available to Handl provided tools to express these intricate ideas because the cultural milieu of that time was sympathetic to and in many ways still guided by those mysteries. It’s hard to imagine this text or the realities it represents being set to a polka or a march.

Since aesthetic forms—in “high” and popular culture—are often expressions of the Zeitgeist, Christians living in confused or rebellious cultures should never assume that they can obtain reliable materials for worship or discipleship off the shelf. As Calvin Stapert has observed, “Christians today live in a society whose musical thought…[has] largely bought into the ideas and practices that came out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.” Today, the mistakes of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—mistakes rooted in a defiant rejection of a Christian understanding of reality — have decomposed into the nihilism Flannery O’Connor sniffed out three generations ago. And our musical culture reflects this, not uniformly, to be sure, but more emphatically than many Christians recognize.

Can God use musical forms that evolved to express autonomy and defiance for “redemptive purposes”? Of course, but that is to say something about God, not about our responsibility to behave wisely. I believe God could use someone’s steady diet of fatty and sugary foods to improve cardiac health, or that he could use the cultivation of aggression and vengeance to promote a spirit of gentle humility. But should we give our children stones when they ask for bread, insisting that God perform a work of transubstantiation at every meal?

Ken Myers is the host and producer of Mars Hill Audio, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by Christian conviction. He lives in central Virginia with his wife and two children, and is a member of All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia, where he serves as music director. 

Music and Meaning

Print

Editor’s note:

We asked Harold Best and Ken Myers the same three questions:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

We'll publish Myers' answer tomorrow. Best’s answer is below:


My answers to these questions derive from principle, not the music I love, like, tolerate, or loathe.

CAN GOD EMPLOY ANY MUSICAL FORM?

Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes? Yes he can, but note the following:

First, there are possible implications in the question that need clarification.

(1) The question seems to imply that some forms might be more useful to God than others based on assumed aesthetic or moral qualities. But this cannot be allowed, for two reasons. First, God doesn’t judge music; he judges people for the reasons they make and use it. Second, christianized choices about acceptable music have never been stable: one generation’s trash becomes another’s treasure. Examples of this are too many to count. Meanwhile, in Luther’s words, the gospel runs its course. But this does not mean that there should be no debate. Rather, the nature of the debate needs changing from philosophized theology to biblical theology.

(2) The question seems to imply that God might have to work harder with music x than music y because x is unfamiliar, overly complex, or overly simplistic, while y meets all “relevance” criteria. But this is flawed: God needs no outside leverage in doing his work. If he did, he surrenders his omnipotence.

Second, viewing the above from another angle, forms or genres are no more unredeemed or redeemed than a mountain sunset or a computer or a jazz tune. Who does God redeem? It’s humanity, uniquely imago Dei, the only save-able or lose-able entity in the creation. Because of the resurrected Christ, the redeemed are the only ones who by faith and in hope are already participants in the new creation.

The template is clear: God saves people, and uses created things in whatever way he pleases. It is in this sense that the rest of creation, dumb to redemption itself—camels and cathedrals can’t be saved—awaits re-creation. Artifacts—sunsets, computers, jazz tunes—remain themselves and are no-things outside of themselves. In all of their self-enclosed meaningfulness, they simply function as themselves, contingently pointing away from themselves to the One, the Truth, who alone redeems.

There are important principles at work here. The Creator is not the creation.  The alternative is pantheism. Further, the creation could not make itself, but had to be made. And by being made, it is both less than, and under submission to, the sovereignty of the Maker.  Let’s take this one step further.  According to Scripture, God granted humankind extraordinary sovereignty over what He made, and by extension, over what it makes.  Music does not make itself.  We bring it into being, and it is neither one with us (we are not the music) nor empowered over us.  If we allow this order to be reversed, the result is inevitable: We become shaped by what we have shaped and by allowing this, have turned to idolatry. But if music is in submission to us and not the reverse, we offer it freely as an act of worship—no more and no less—and are thus delivered from depending on it as a cause of worship. Even when we talk about music being an aid to, or tool for, worship, we are flirting with sovereignty-reversal, especially in this culture of narcissism and power mongering.  Furthermore, if I look to music as an aid, and end up in a worship service where the music is stylistically upsetting or even offensive, does it then become an aid to non-worship?  Not as long as I understand that the Holy Spirit is the sovereign Aid to worship, who can neutralize any temporary circumstance.  Likewise, if I find myself in a musical setting that is rhapsodically wonderful, I must remember that the beauty of the music cannot approach the glory and wonder of Almighty God. 

Third, the term “musical form” is benignly abstract. Take the following constructs:

  • blah-62-blah;
  • the nation’s Capitol Building;
  • %+%;
  • minuet-trio-minuet.

They are all in the same ABA (ternary) form but each is essentially different and differently shaped.

To live in a world of “forms” is to live in a world of essentialized dis-reality. By contrast, to live in a universe of nearly infinite shapes, each one real in itself, is quintessentially biblical. A pine tree is not a manifestation of an idealized pine tree, for there is no such thing “out there.”

God’s way is this way: each pine tree is an individualized completeness, good-in-itself. And while all pine trees are God’s personal handiwork, one pine tree can be more beautiful or crooked or symmetrical than another one. Meanwhile the Creator declares each one “good.”  Further, a pine tree cannot be ultimately said to be more beautiful than a red-winged blackbird, even though one blackbird can be more beautiful than another.

At the musical level, the beauty of a jazz improvisation cannot be said to better a Renaissance motet, even though one jazz improvisation (or motet) can be deemed better than another. And if we want to insert the concept of taste into these examples, taste is the arbitrary exercise of deciding-among. Meanwhile, intrinsic worth is a given while quality varies.

ARE SOME MUSICAL FORMS “BETTER” THAN OTHERS?

Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?

The quick answer is “no”, but the question deserves further consideration. I have no idea what “better” means except in a relative sense: x can be better than y even though x is never perfect. To complicate things, we often cross wires by using “better” in a moral sense, thus confusing taste and purity.

The Scherzo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is in simple ternary form, as are a thousand third-movement works in as many classical compositions. The Beethoven is better by far, but is it better than the second movement of Brahms’ German Requiem, also in ternary form? Who’s to say? I can’t.

However, I can say this: the most mediocre ternary form imaginable among those thousand compositions has intrinsic goodness and can be as spiritual as any choosing heart might say. Quality is a matter of taste, which, even among the most practiced connoisseurs, is straightforwardly arguable. And I disagree with those who bring taste—as important as it is in its comparative domain—into matters of spirituality. For who among them is expert enough to test the subtle nuances of sheer goodness without dipping into extremist comparatives: “good taste/bad taste”; “art/non-art”; “morally good/morally bad”?

God nowhere defines spiritual music, but he is unequivocal about what a spiritual person inwardly is, irrespective of the “betterness” of a cultural artifact. St. Paul, in talking about “spiritual songs,” certainly meant text types before musical types. Otherwise, the terms “psalms” and “hymns” would imply “other-than-spiritual.”

Furthermore, if we were to speak of something being of better moral quality, we’re fudging, because there are no gradations in true morality. “Fudging” on tax returns is no less immoral than lust for a new Camaro or bed-mate. Sin is sin, both for believers and non-believers. But spirituality is a condition within which increasing christlikeness deepens and cleanses us but in no way lessens the exceeding sinfulness of sin or guarantees sinless perfection.

In short, any construct that even suggests an equation between Truth (absolute) and beauty (variable) walks into a theological morass.

ARE SOME FORMS “BETTER” FOR CHURCH?

Finally, are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

“Better” is the wrong word. “Appropriate” is better. “Better,” as already explained, is relative, whereas “appropriate” in the biblical sense comes as the result of searching among things that are relative to each other.  

Deciding among relativities is called discernment.  The decision becomes absolute because it derives out of a solemn commitment made to the Lord. But this does not mean that the artifacts are absolutized.  Nor does it mean that, as contexts change the artifacts can’t change as God leads.  For instance, I would be playing fast and loose with a commandment if I were to ask God for discernment as to whether I drink myself to drunkenness. But I can pray for discernment as to why and how much I drink and with whom I choose to drink, especially if he or she is weaker, in which case, by discernment I abstain from what I know to be good.  By the same token, the leadership in any local assembly is free to assume that all available musical options are on the table until, by prayerful discernment, a local template is cut that accords with what is best for that particular community, not in terms of “how to grow a church” or “how to get people to worship” but what informed wisdom demands. 

If there are problems with music and the church in today’s culture, it’s not about the latest, newest, strangest, most secularized music, or picking on this or that style in the name of sanctified otherness. It’s about the egregious errors that are regularly anointed by pastors and so-called worship leaders and ecclesiastical analysts.

These errors revolve around giving music—any music in any worship context—far more compartmentalized attention than even the best of it deserves. This is where we, not culture, have become paganized, in mirroring a post-Romanticist, culture-wide addiction to music. We’re talking idolatry, but not just the kind where music is reputed to have the power to change lives—this alone is refutable—but where music, any music, any style, anywhere, becomes indispensable to doing anything and everything, including so-called Christian worship. Far too often, music means worship and worship means music. This is a blatant hook-up between things of the spirit and mere handiwork. And this hook-up takes us down the road to idolatrous pantheism sprinkled with holy water.

In short, if we were to stop our speculations about ideal forms, moral content, and good taste (as if we from our Western, post-Enlightenment duck blind had the only bead on them); if we were to get back to the simple wonder of the sheer fact of music, offered temperately, humbly, imaginatively, servingly, discerningly and in complete surrender to the sovereign Word of God, the conversation would be radically different.

Harold M. Best is Dean Emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and past president of the National Association of Schools of Music. He has authored a number of books, including Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts, reviewed by 9Marks here.

Book Review: Taking God at His Word, by Kevin DeYoung

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I try to consume a fairly steady diet of good books on the doctrine of Scripture, at least one or two a year. The evangelical doctrine of Scripture is constantly under attack from what can seem a bewildering array of angles. And confidence in Scripture is crucial for our confidence in the gospel Scripture preaches and the God Scripture reveals. So I’m grateful for a growing list of books on Scripture that have stirred and strengthened my faith.
 
For instance, Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture laid a bedrock foundation I return to constantly. Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God crystallizes and condenses some of the same essential arguments. Bavinck’s Prolegomena is lucid, rock-solid, and pastorally perceptive. Timothy Ward’s Words of Life helpfully unpacks Scripture’s role in God’s plan of salvation, as does Scott Swain’s outstanding Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.
 
Kevin DeYoung’s new book Taking God at His Word now occupies a special place on this list. It’s the best book I’m aware of on the doctrine of Scripture that virtually any church member can read.
 
Click here to continue reading.

Stylized Soundtracks and Sunday Morning

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Whatever happened to headphones? Or even earbuds, their scrawny successors?

Since the advent of the iPhone, it seems to me that more and more people project their music into the air around them instead of into their ears. I see this—hear it, rather—everywhere: the gym, the airport, the reservoir I walk around near my home. I’m constantly bursting into other people’s personal Beyoncé or Bieber bubbles.

I could talk about how technologies like tiny speakers only reveal the self-absorption already present in the heart, but I won’t. Instead, there’s a parable here I want to probe, a parable that portrays the difference between how we tend to listen to music individually and how we should approach music in church.

STYLIZED SOUNTRACKS

These projected musical spheres picture the fact that for many people today, music serves as a kind of stylized soundtrack to our lives.

Why do you listen to the music you listen to? The reasons are likely layered and sometimes subconscious. On some level, most people’s aesthetic judgments are intuitive: you like what you like. But musical preferences are also influenced by where you grew up, what your parents listened to, what your parents forbid you to listen to, and—especially—what your friends listen to. And preferences can shift over time in large and small ways.

What you listen to also depends on the mood you’re in and the mood you want to set. If you’re depressed, melancholy music can feel cathartic. If you’re exercising, you want to get your blood pumping. If you’re working or studying, you probably want music that will tune out distractions without turning into a distraction.

And what you listen to depends on present company. Hence the eternal struggle, in some families, for control of the car radio.

What’s the big picture here? In the late modern West, and increasingly throughout the world, music functions for many like a movie score writ small. It signals the cultural niche of the characters, sets the mood, and enhances the action.

That music works like this is more or less a fact of life today, but it’s not a fact of nature. Customized music consumption is possible only because of the technology and commercial structures that enable it. To paint in broad strokes, prior to the advent of mass media most people’s experience of music was just like all their neighbors’: they heard and sang the songs of their people. People used to hum folk songs, the common property of generations, while they plowed the fields and baked the bread. By contrast, the cornucopia of choice that characterizes today’s music consumption is a feature of advanced capitalism.

That doesn’t make it wrong. But it does mean we should look out for instincts programmed by the habit of customized consumption that might need to be deprogrammed when we step into church on Sunday morning.

SUNDAY MORNING

Why? Because music in church is doing something very different from what it’s doing on our iPhones.

In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18–19 exhorts us not to get drunk, but instead to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”

In these passages Paul addresses the whole congregation. He commands the whole church to sing, just as God frequently commands his people to sing to him throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 33:3, 47:6).

It’s not that the band plays music up front while everyone listens or maybe sings along, like at a concert. Instead, the church is the band. What accompaniment there is simply serves and supports the church’s singing.

In church, music isn’t something we consume but something we create.

And what exactly is this music for? It is a means by which we make melody to the Lord and give thanks to him. It is also a means by which we address, admonish, and instruct one another. Our singing in church is directed to God and each other. It aims at God’s glory and the good of the body. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson…Let all things be done for building up.”

That this singing is corporate rather than individual is not accidental but essential. Paul prays for the church in Rome, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6). Paul wants the church in Rome to live as one so they can glorify God as one. He wants their unified songs of praise to express their unified life as a church. We glorify God by singing together because in Christ God has brought us together.

In the church, music is a means by which we all, as one body, glorify the Lord and edify each other by singing the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

DIFFERENCES

Far from being a stylized personal soundtrack, music in church is more like a score for an orchestra: the church is the orchestra, and every single member is an instrument. Note that in moving from everyday music to music in church we’ve switched from passive to active. Again, you don’t consume music in church; you create it.

We’ve also switched from individual to corporate. The point of music in church is not that you would have a private spiritual experience of the presence of God as you sing or as others perform. Instead, the point is that your voice would combine with dozens or hundreds of others into one voice which praises God and proclaims his grace to his people.

When an orchestra shows up to perform, everyone knows it’s a team effort. Dozens of musicians play from one score so that the orchestra plays as one. Out of the dozens of musicians comes one unified sound. It’s unthinkable that the members of the orchestra would insist on only playing the parts that resonated with their personal preferences. For many to sound as one, the many must lay down any agendas that have potential to fragment their unity.  

In moving from everyday music to Sunday morning, we’ve also switched from personal to prescribed purposes. On your own time, as long as you’re loving God and your neighbor, you can do whatever you want with music. But as we’ve seen, music in church has purposes that are precisely prescribed by God.

All music in church must enable the church to build each other up and praise God. That’s a matter of the whole church’s obedience or disobedience to the word of God. What matters most in church music is that it causes the word of Christ to dwell in the church richly. Substance, therefore, is more important than style. And the most important questions about style are not whether it meshes with someone’s preferences, but whether a song’s style serves the divinely mandated purposes of whole-church praise and admonition.

PREFERENCES

What then should you do about your musical preferences in church? To put it bluntly, leave them at the door.

You can turn your iPod back on as soon as you hop into the car and drive home. In church, though, lay down your preferences and gladly sing what the body sings. The eye, ear, hand, and foot may all have their preferences, but the body sings as one.

You should expect to check your preferences at the door, first, because of the differences between how we typically consume music as individuals and how we are to create music in the church. I’m not suggesting that most Christians think they can treat their church’s order of service like an iTunes playlist. But I do think our musical consumer culture is so pervasive that it takes hard work to give up preferences rather than insisting on them. We’re so used to crafting our own soundtracks that it takes effort to cultivate a musical culture where the many matters more than the one.

And giving up our preferences for the good of the body is exactly what the gospel calls us to do. The gospel calls us to give up so others can gain, to count others more significant than ourselves, just as Christ did for us (Phil. 2:1–11). So imitate Christ as you sing to Christ in the body Christ. If glorifying God in song is a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15), don’t be surprised if it costs you something.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway). He has a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from the University of Southern California. While writing this article he listened to Gregory Alan Isakov, the Beatles, and Bach.

 

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Book Review: Unceasing Worship, by Harold Best

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My worship journey includes a time as a thirteen-year-old novice guitarist with braces and a bowl cut. Many a Wednesday evening was spent thrashing out my cutting-edge acoustic guitar under the soul-stirring lyrics of “fun songs.” These were the songs that required teenagers to sing lyrics tinged with Bible verses accompanied by various awkward motions. Those were the days.
 
As a result of such less-than-soul-stirring experiences, I’m always grateful for an opportunity to sharpen my theology of worship. What is worship? How does it work? What does it have to do with Sunday morning?
 
Harold Best’s rather original work Unceasing Worship provides an opportunity for such sharpening. Further, Best puts forth a biblical framework through which pastors and churches can think generally about the arts, which is useful since we all use at least one art form (music) every week in our gatherings.
So even if you don’t find yourself in complete agreement with Best, this book will still get you thinking about your own theology of worship. Personally, I was struck by how quick I am to think that I’ve got everything figured out when it comes to worship. You’d think my bowl-cut, braces-wearing experiences would have taught me that sooner.
 
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Book Review: True Worship, by Vaughn Roberts

Ask Trey, a college student in your church, what he thinks it is. You might hear, “It’s kind of like…well, you know…I mean—I don’t know. It’s private—a me and God thing. It’s like love – hard to define but you know it when you’re in it.” 
 

Ask Granny Susie, who’s led the church choir longer than you’ve been alive, and you might hear, “Well, it’s Sunday mornin’ praise, baby!”

Ask Steven, the church band’s guitarist, and you might hear, “It’s the surge of God’s presence that I lead people into.”

The question of course is, What is true worship? Many in our churches define worship however they please.

But does God’s Word grant such freedom? Does it define worship, and if so, how? These are the questions Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, answers in his short book True Worship. He wrote it out of concern “that much of our thinking about worship is confused and often unbiblical” (Loc. 46).[1]

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Book Review: An Anxious Age, by Joseph Bottum

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An Anxious Age—the latest from Catholic essayist and pundit Joseph Bottum—is a book about the religious dimension of American public life. And it’s about the rise of a social class with an outsized influence on the shape of American culture, a group he calls post-Protestants.
 
But it’s a tough book to categorize, and perhaps even tougher to evaluate. It’s an interpretation of America’s past, but I wouldn’t call it a work of history. There are no footnotes, not many direct quotes, and regular sweeping assertions with little attempt at support. Its main conversation partners are sociological standards, but I wouldn’t call it a work of sociology either. There are no charts, no surveys collected and analyzed, and no field research to speak of.

 

There’s not much analytical precision or hard data in Bottum’s portrait of the post-Protestants. Instead, much like a work of fiction, the trustworthiness of this book rests on the author’s close personal observations, and on what you might call the self-attesting resonance of his descriptions—whether the character development is believable, whether you recognize from experience who he’s talking about.

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Book Review: Popcultured, by Steve Turner

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The weekend I wrote this review included two activities so regular in our household they are almost liturgical. On Saturday, my wife and I ordered takeaway from our usual Chinese restaurant and settled down to watch the finale of X-Factor, the British version of American Idol. On Sunday, we passed through the door of our local Baptist church where we are members. This pattern is so typical that our two-month-old daughter knows of no other kind of weekend.
 
I imagine that for many Christians such a combination is not unusual. The kind of takeout may differ. The choice of entertainment may vary, and be less embarrassing. But that our lives involve us both in church and popular culture is almost inevitable for 21st-century Christians.
 
But it raises some questions: are these two areas of life—popular culture and Christian living—related? Does one affect the other in any way? Is watching lightweight TV tantamount to sin, a waste of the precious time that God has given us? Or is popular culture simply a nothing, like an inert, colourless gas, unable to affect anything or change anything due to its inherent weightlessness; harmless but unworthy of serious attention from the Christian?
 
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Book Review: Saving Eutychus, by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell

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If you are a preacher or an aspiring preacher, you should buy, read, and put this book into practice. Don’t take my word for it. D.A. Carson asserts, “Many books on preaching are published every year; this one is a ‘must.’” And Alistair Begg adds, “This book deserves to be included in the ‘must read’ category of preachers.” The strength of Saving Eutychus is the authors’ ability to make a persuasive appeal for expository preaching and then to practically show us how to do it.
 

Millar emphasizes two key elements in his definition of expository preaching: the text and the heart. True expository preaching is bringing the text of God’s Word to bear upon the hearts of people. Millar writes, “Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon” (31). Every text possesses a message and an ethos. The preacher’s task is to craft and communicate his sermon so that the main point and ethos of the text is main point and ethos of the sermon.

Expository preaching is not simply the relaying of knowledge or a download of information. The goal is that we both understand and feel the message of the text. So, authentic expository preaching includes the mind and the heart, the intellect and the affections. As you read the authors' definition of preaching, you might want to stand up and preach. I did.

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Book Review: Reading for Preaching, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

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At this point in my life I write a lot and preach a little. My job involves reviewing, editing, and writing books, so you could say I’m a professional reader, but an amateur preacher.
 

That’s why I’m a little skeptical of my own bias toward a book like Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. “Of course!” says the writer. “Preachers should read more! And more widely!” But should they really?

Yes, says Plantinga, president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary. Why? To sum up the book with a phrase borrowed from it, a preacher should be the kind of person on whom nothing is lost, and reading widely helps (72).

“Helps” reflects the book’s refreshing modesty. Plantinga wants preachers to read widely—that is, outside the fields of Bible and theology—for a number of reasons: to find illustrations, yes, but also to tune their ears to the power of well-chosen words, and to meet wisdom in street clothes (chs. 2-6). Yet his recommended yoke is light: one novel, one biography, and a fifth of a book of poetry each year, with a weekly visit to the Arts & Letters Daily website thrown in (42).

In Chapter 3, “Tuning the Preacher’s Ear,” Plantinga covers “clarity and her best children” and four aspects of diction: rhetorical pitch, narrative movement, economy, and evocativeness. In his analysis of one model sermon’s rhetorical pitch, Plantinga commends a register that “is neither tuxedo formal nor tank top casual. We might call it ‘upscale colloquial’ or ‘business casual,’ and add that it will engage a great many listeners.” This pitch “makes the sermon formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear” (49).

This is sound advice elegantly stated—which I could say of just about the whole book. But my point in drawing attention to rhetorical pitch is that this is an issue more preachers could afford to critically consider. The same goes for the other stylistic tools Plantinga probes. Words are the preacher’s raw material, and most preachers could use help learning how to mine their potential.

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