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Welcome to my blog, MB's Theological Thoughts. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, feel free to ask, either in a comment or an email. If it's a legitimate question, I'll do my best to answer it. Might take some thinking and some time, but again, I'll do my best.

17 November, 2010

The Ins and Outs of Music.

I'm not going to give you a college-level music theory course in this article, but I'm rather going to note some major disagreements with regards to music theory, and then explain how they have changed. Then I'm going to note some current disagreements in the Adventist church and state my opinions. Bear in mind that I am studying music and therefore know more than those who just repeat things they've heard. But neither am I as much of an expert as somebody who has written their dissertation on the subject. Nonetheless, this will be a long article.

From the beginning, music theory has been more of a set of rules and guidelines for the creation of music or a set of explanations for how and why certain musical idioms work. Music theory has always had a philosophical branch. But that philosophy changes with the times. In the early Church, music was unaccompanied, borrowing largely from Platonic thought. It was created a certain way, and any change was considered a corruption of the sacred melody. This was what brought about the rise of notation: the need for uniformity. But this has changed drastically: arrangement is increasingly popular and original composition seems to be falling out of style due to a certain stigma I've noticed among many amateur musicians that classical music is boring, for the rich, stuck up, et cetera. The vast majority of composition seems to be focused on popular music, the modern-day troubadour song, if you will.

Another thing that has changed drastically is the use of the Devil's Interval, the tritone. Even until the Baroque period, the tritone was considered evil. 1200 years ago, if a tritone was sounded, not just during the worship service, but any time in song, everything was stopped. Exorcisms were performed. Prayers were recited for the blessing of God. But the tritone is a crucial part of a crucial chord, the Dominant 7th. This chord is found everywhere, even in church. It has been used since baroque times as a color and has become accepted without a second thought.

It seems that every new addition to music theory has met with some resistance. When Mozart wrote his Musical Joke, a four-movement work that predated the work of Peter Schickele by nearly two hundred years, people didn't know what to think of it. When Beethoven emphasized harmonic and rhythmic content rather than a melody, people were outraged and called it noise, of all things! Imagine Beethoven being called unmusical! The same is true today. Contemporary Christian music traces its roots all the way back to the beginnings of rock music in the early twentieth century. As popular music evolved, so did Christian music. The song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds is straight out of Scripture. After that, people like Keith Green and Amy Grant were forerunners in shaping the way Christian music is today. Amy Grant especially fell under critics' fire when she did some music for the mainstream market. I personally believe that is the reason she is such a well rounded musician: she wasn't afraid of writing songs about life.

This criticism of new addition leads into some modern versions of the theoretical disagreements in the early Church. The current disagreements in SDA church music are focused primarily around two things: 1) instrumentation and style; and 2) lyrical content. Let's hear some from the con-argument regarding instrumentation.
I don't think getting up front and strumming the guitar is actual music. If you're going to learn an instrument, you need to do it properly. - Opinionated Organist

The reason we shouldn't allow drums up front is that they come out of the Jazz and Rock and Roll traditions, which use them to evoke the power of Satan. - Consummate Conservative

Lyrics are never the focus of rock music. The beat is always the focus, and in rock, unlike *classical* music, it places the emphasis on 2 and 4. This changes brain wave patterns to produce the same waves that happen during SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. - Mr. Know-It-All

Electric guitars distort and pollute the sound, so we should never use them. God likes only pure and soft sound and calm music. - Never Nothin' but Nylon
These arguments are all fallacious in some way. Some of them, such as the one presented by Mr. Know-It-All, reflect a total lack of theoretical knowledge and a proclivity misinterpreting or spouting quotations from biased studies. Never Nothin' but Nylon (hereafter known as Brother N) discounts the electric guitar as an separate entity and compares it with his own instrument. Consummate Conservative (Brother C hereafter) cites history, yet discounts culture, while ordaining one style of music and condemning another like Brother N. And finally, Opinionated Organist (Brother O hereafter) argues that only one technique is viable even when it may not be appropriate.

Let's start with the first argument. Brother O insists that the strumming of a guitar with a plectrum (pick) is lazy, improper technique. This can be refuted with a simple glance at the piano's function in hymnody: to perform harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. The guitar in many worship bands has fulfilled this purpose while the piano has become a device for ornamentation and color. Regarding strumming and pick usage, music history has our answer. The guitar is descended probably from the lute, descended from the Arabic oud. Historically as well as today, the primary means of sounding the strings on a lute-like instrument has been...what's this? A plectrum! Along the same lines, strumming is nothing more than a rhythmic arpeggiation of chords. Where do we see that? The harp, violin family, piano, organ, harpsichord and many others. It's a technique that is as old as the Early Baroque at least. But it seems our stigma centered around rhythm, liveliness and syncopation has given us blinders, endorsing the traditional SDA musical tradition and throwing everything else away.

Second, Brother C states in a roundabout way that the usage of drums is the invocation of the Devil. This is born of a logical fallacy mixed in with a disregard for cultural difference in music. Bother C notes that the usage of drums in modern Christian music traces its roots to the Jazz and Rock and Roll traditions, which in turn trace their roots back to a blending of African music with European music. While it is true that in some traditions, such as Santería, the usage of rhythm can be used to invoke "evil spirits". But that does not mean that drums are intrinsically evil. Why do the rhythms of witch doctors and Santería practitioners call upon the spirits and idols? It's because that is their intent. Percussion instruments aren't evil, of course; they've been in widespread use in symphony orchestras for centuries. Psalm 150 call us to praise God with crashing cymbals (check, check and check), tambourines, trumpets: all of them loud instruments!

Think back to the contest on Mt. Carmel. Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al squared off in a dead heat to prove whose god was true: Jehovah or Ba'al. Each side used prayer to try and invoke their deity. When the prayers of supplication to Ba'al didn't work, his priests and prophets began to get louder. They shouted in frustration, still trying to invoke their god. They cut themselves and danced around the altar, desperate to get his attention. One could argue that this indicates shouting to God and dancing before him are evil, but again, they are not intrinsically evil when we use basic exegesis. The target of invocation was not Jehovah, but Ba'al. Elijah's target of invocation was Jehovah, the one true God, and he had found favor with God as evidenced by the fireball that burned up the altar to the Lord as well as all the water in the trenches around it.

We use drums for a different purpose than what many Adventists claim is intrinsic within them. In classical music, they are used as a musical color and an instrument to provide rhythm, as they were used to provide a solid beat for a troupe of laborers in ancient times. In modern music, they fulfill a similar purpose: to serve as a rhythmic device and a musical color. The purpose for which contemporary Christian musicians use drums is clearly a repudiation of Brother C's argument.

Mr. Know-it-all presents what seems to some like a valid argument, one used quite often to demonize rock music as being disorderly and harmful to the body. But it suffers from two fallacies: first, that the argument is formed by citing studies based around "soft" scientific evidence such as observation that has no concrete explanation. Secondly, the brain-wave pattern studies are largely correlative, not necessarily showing a causal relationship. The questionability of these studies also stems from the fact that they seem to me to be biased in their hypotheses and result sets. Never have I seen a music EEG study cited that does anything but demonize rock and glorify Mozart and Bach. What about other genres? We have Chant, Renaissance motets and chansons, the Romantic Era of classical music, 12-tone music, neo-classical, and so on and so forth. Yes, the genres are diverse enough that we can't study all of them, but it doesn't seem fair that the only two ever used are Rock and the Baroque and Classical periods in classical music. While I can neither prove nor refute the argument with my knowledge alone, it holds little water until more extensive research is found. Citing somebody who says rock music congeals raw eggs like hard-boiling based on something he heard is hardly my idea of empirical, scholarly research.

My second point of contention with Mr. Know-it-all's argument is that he says syncopation is intrinsically evil. He says that rock music takes the accent of the beat and places it on beats two and four, rather than on beats one and three. But what he fails to see is the theory behind the rock beat. I have studied this rhythm for years on top of all my formal theory instruction and will say here and now that he is wrong in this. In shortest terms, the rock beat is the same in accent as a classical 4/4. The emphasis lies with the kick drum, and the release with the snare. Look at it as a rubber band: the strong beat imparts tension, stretching the band. The weak beat releases it with the snap of the snare drum. The beater is buried in the kick drum, whereas the stick bounces off the snare. Mr. Know-it-all is overanalyzing things, making them means to an end, when the answer is that nothing has changed rhythmically.

Finally we have Brother N's argument. He doesn't believe that the electric guitar is a legitimate instrument because its sound is distorted electronically and is therefore impure. While the initial distortion of the guitar may or may not have been accidental, it has nonetheless become desirable. The beauty of the electric guitar is that it is amplified and can be heard much easier by many more people, and that it has its unique tone palette. Its signal can be unaltered, distorted, overdriven, modulated with several kinds of effects, made to sound akin to almost any instrument through MIDI and sythesizers...the possibilities are endless. Each instrument has its own unique sound, and trying to replace an electric guitar with an acoustic guitar (and vice versa) while retaining the same role is ludicrous. It's like trying to replace a trumpet with a flugelhorn or a cornet and getting the exact same sound. It's not possible due to timbre differences between the instruments, just like the timbre differences between acoustic and electric instruments. It's still sound production; it's just achieved through a different means.

Brother N uses his own personal taste to condemn what he doesn't like. When this principle is applied toward religion, it's called intolerance. When it's applied toward skin color, it's called racism. I don't like the tone quality of the Serpent, a Baroque predecessor of the tuba, but I don't condemn it as evil! The Bible instructs us not to place curses on things, for only God has the power of judgment (Proverbs 10:31, Matthew 7:1, Romans 12:14, 1 Peter 1:15, to name a few); yet, it seems that prominent figures in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have placed curses (imposed sanctions, if you will) on trivial matters such as diet, the wearing of jewelry, music, tattoos, the observance of Sabbath.... When personal taste becomes tradition becomes dogma, we start to see a legalism reminiscent of the Pharisees.

All these cases identify the weaknesses in arguments against certain types of music, while pointing out that the "holy genres of music" are not divinely appointed by Scripture, but in fact come from tradition and taste. It's like the "liturgy" of Seventh-day Adventism, the program order, meeting time, and offering calendar: none of those are divinely appointed in the pages of Scripture. They are created as organizational structures by human beings. If anything, Scripture encourages jubilant praise (Psalm 150)! What it condemns is empty, worthless prayers that place focus on self (Matthew 7). It condemns the worship of idols (yes, I'm saying it) such as hymns. We should be lamenting the apathetic nature of our modern hymnal performance, not condemning jubilant praise as chaotic and not solemn! Solemn in this context is a synonym of contrite, not somber, yet we insist on mumbling through "Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It!" like it's a dirge. God wants us to be happy. He wants us to rejoice. When did music change from honey on the rim of a medicine cup to the bitter herbs of a Passover Seder? We'll go into it next week, and then I'll discuss doing the same thing that tropes did in the Middle Ages: augmenting the music and making it better.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This is the fourth of a series of articles about music in the SDA Church and other denominations. Next Friday: Modern-day Tropes, dredging up ancient history*

All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New King James Version, © Thomas Nelson, Inc. 

04 November, 2010

Late again

Good cow! I have been so blasted busy that my blog has once again fallen by the wayside. Expect my next entry Friday the 12th.
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29 October, 2010

Christian Music Elsewhere: My observations

The function of music in denominations other than Seventh-day Adventism varies greatly depending on the denomination. I have made observations in non-denominational churches, one Mass, and one Episcopalian Morning Song, and I have seen video footage of some of the music in the Pentecostal Hillsong megachurch in Australia. This article will go into a bit of detail about my observations on how music functions in those denominations.

Starting with the two denominations that predate Seventh-day Adventism by centuries, I will say that music functions both very similarly and very differently in liturgical churches. The role of music is much the same in the Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) denominations; it is "one of the most effective ways of impressing the heart with spiritual truth" (White, Education, pp. 167, 168). St. Basil is recorded as saying the following:
When the Holy Spirit saw that mankind was ill-inclined toward virtue and that we were heedless of the righteous life because of our inclination to pleasure, what did he do? He blended the delight of melody with doctrine in order that through the pleasantness and softness of the sound we might unawares receive what was useful in the words, according to the practice of wise physicians, who, when they give the more bitter draughts to the sick, often smear the rim of the cup with honey. -St. Basil, Homily on the first Psalm
The Mass Ordinary is one of the staples of classical literature; hundreds of composers from the pre-Renaissance Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) to Franz Schubert have set the text that makes up the Mass Ordinary to music. And even still, modern songs make use of the text of such elements as the Credo (cf. Creed by Rich Mullins and, later, Third Day). The use of music in the liturgical churches is, however, varied from the Seventh-day Adventist church in that it follows a liturgical calendar. The Adventists have no set "liturgy" except for the order of the program and the regularity of Communion Sabbath's occurrence. The songs for the Mass Proper change at every service, but the Mass Ordinary--Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Ite missa est--remains the same. The Adventist service changes content weekly, from music to sermon.

In non-denominational churches, the function of music tends to be a little bit different. I have attended services at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, CA as well as The Ridge Church in Rocklin, CA, both of which are non-denominational. Bayside is much better known between the two of them; it has a much larger membership and a worship leader that has gained somewhat of a following. Perhaps you've heard of Lincoln Brewster? None other.

Now, given the nature of the worship service in non-denominational churches, it's safe to say that music functions slightly differently. While in Adventism and the older liturgical denominations, music's role is to impress spiritual wisdom and guidance upon the heart, these non-denominational churches tend to focus on the worship itself rather than the ins and outs, the philosophy, if you will. Music is there to unite the congregation in raising their hands to the Lord. That's it. In some ways, it's an outlet for the congregation to participate in the service other than listening to the message.

This unity is usually a lot more fueled by emotion than congregational unity in the Adventist church. In fact, why should we be emotional in our praises when Ellen White specifically guards against it in her admonishment of the Holy Flesh Movement at the Indiana camp meeting? (Sarcasm obvious, no?) For centuries, music philosophers have warned against the stirring of emotions when it comes to music, for music has been since the days of Greek philosophy a tribute to the gods, or in our case Jehovah. Yet countless times in Scripture, we see jubilant praising of the Lord. We see celebrations of victory in both the Old and New Testaments. David danced before the Lord--in his UNDERWEAR--with all his might. And when Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, the people cried, "Hosanna!" and waved palm fronds. It was a celebration for the King had come.

It is often such in non-denominational churches. Unfettered by the conventions of a strict, conservative structure, they release their praises to God. After all, they are following the instructions given in Psalm 150. We are to praise the Lord in His sanctuary, not mumble words to convoluted hymns we don't know! As a result of this modern "Ars nova", however, many precious praise songs have become tropes. I've sung How Great is Our God hundreds of times since the first time I heard it. And frankly, it's gotten old. I long for songs like Near the Cross again.

As I conclude this article, I will say one thing: music always has and always will evoke emotion. It is a method for conveying thoughts and feelings that language cannot express. It adds to a simple text such as, "Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper et in saecula saeculorum," a meaning that cannot be conveyed by simply reading. It unifies people in their praises of the Lord, and it is promised that when we are unified in the Lord, He will be right there in our midst.

In the next three or so weeks I'm going to conclude this series by explaining more about music and the little cogs, springs and doodads that make it work; I'm going to present many problems in regards to music in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and I'm going to present a solution so that we may once again unify under one banner, the irrefutable truths that Jesus loves you, He died for you, and He's coming to take you home.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This is the third of a series of articles about music in the SDA Church and other denominations. Next Friday: The Ins and Outs of Music*

All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New King James Version, © Thomas Nelson, Inc. 

08 October, 2010

WoW, what a week!

Those of you who attend Walla Walla University know that this week was Week of Worship with pastor Murray Hunter all the way from Down Undah. And naturally, the fact that it is Week of Worship means the schedule was thrown into a Blendtec blender and totally screwed up. (What's red and green and goes 120 mph? MY SCHEDULE!) Because of this totally foreseen setback, I haven't had any time to work on this week's entry. So expect my observations on music in the "mainstream" Christian world next Friday.

Your Brother in Christ,

01 October, 2010

Music in the SDA Church: My observations

This article is going to be a bit different than my articles have been in the past. I will simply discuss my personal observations about music in the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination, correlating them with advice from Ellen White and the Scriptures, and presenting my own philosophy related to the two.

I have been to my share of SDA churches. And in attending these churches, be they for a choral performance or by membership, I have noticed that, while the music culture is gradually aligning with contemporary Christian music, traditional sacred music is still king. This comes to light in discussions on music in which I have participated on the internet, including arguments that contemporary Christian Music, even that which takes its lyrics directly from the Bible, is of the Devil. They cite inconclusive studies, misquote Ellen White, and formulate their own dogmas based on their personal taste.

One of the biggest arguments I have ever had was on the Real Time Faith forum, which shut down in 2007. This discussion, however, spilled over into Real Time Faith's privately run successor, Real Time Believers. The now dead discussion has a total of 163 posts, spanning almost two years. Many users argued for the integrity of CCM, mostly the percussion element, while others demonized it as a feeble attempt to corrupt Godly music with demonic influences. A second topic links to an article which decries the frequently used fallacies such as the basic rock beat pattern throwing off brain wave patterns or imitating sexual intercourse.

This debate laid bare the opinions of several young people (the average age of the participants was somewhere around 15), but most of it was based on opinion in addressing the debate's sole question: "Which is more important: the music or the lyrics." I will go more into the ins and outs of music in #4 two weeks from now, but I will say that if a hymn had objectionable lyrics it would be shot down just as modern hymns with "disagreeable" music.

 The Role of Music
The role of music in the SDA church is similar to other Protestant churches in that its primary purpose is the worship of God in song. This can come about through either vocal or instrumental songs, often using instruments of the classical music world. Ellen White clarifies the role of music in worship as "one of the most effective ways of impressing the heart with spiritual truth" (Education, pp. 167, 168). It is a weapon against discouragement, a way to ward off the advances of the Enemy.

It does seem, however that we, as this advice seems to, place so much stress on praising God that songs of uncertainty and turmoil get completely thrown out. Many of the Psalms, such as Psalm 42 are prayers for help in times of peril. Psalm 59 is a call for God to "Awake to punish all the nations; [to] not be merciful to any wicked transgressors" (v. 5).

Ecclesiastes 3:1 states plainly that "to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." Yes, there is a time for praising in God, but there is also a time to be angry because of sin. There is a time to cry out to God to lift us out of this pit of despair. Many of the Psalms do this. And many of the heavier CCM songs do this as well; one of my favorite songs, Disciple's Scars Remain is like this. It would be banned from many Protestant congregations because of its musical idiom. But when you feel the emotions conveyed in the song's lyrics and music, you realize it is a song about being discouraged and then seeing that Jesus shares our suffering (cf. Gal 6:2).

The Usage of Music
This is where things become a little less of a grey area, and more black-and-white in the SDA Church. I grew up in a fairly conservative church, hearing hymns I didn't know. I always thought that choir was part of church, and I had no idea what it takes to make one sound good. In my eight year old mind, the organ was a massively complex instrument that only old people played. Guitars were never on stage, and drama of any kind was only permitted on Youth Sabbath. I just thought it was the way Christian music was until I listened to K-LOVE for the first time. But even then, I'd never imagine that kind of music in church.

But I know of one fairly small church whose musical tastes are evolving quickly. Not ten years ago they had a resident organist who played every Sabbath. Piano was the primary means of accompanying the small choir they call the Praise Team. One Sabbath, they added a bass guitar. Then, after a while, a friend of mine started playing bass on the Praise Team. One morning, while he was tuning up his bass, the organist got up, walked all the way across the stage, and accosted him. To this organist, the prelude and postlude were performances, special musics of sorts!

This young man was being as unobtrusive as he could. It was before the start of the service, and if he'd been a member of the sound crew adjusting a microphone while everybody was talking and listening to the background music, I'd bet this organist would have accosted him as well. It seemed to my friend like a set of priorities in the wrong place.

Music should be entered into with humility when praising the Lord, be it in a choir, in prayer, on a penny whistle, or singing in the shower. Ellen White says that we should conduct our services "with solemnity {not somberness} and awe, as if in the visible presence of the Master of assemblies." If this organist's heart had been on God and not on the performance as if it was a concert, he wouldn't have cared that I crept up on stage to do something that he, as a cellist in addition to an organist, should know is paramount. Wait, did I just reveal my friend's identity? Oh well.

My point is that music in the SDA denomination, in my observations, has been fairly controlled. Dissent has been quashed, be it from youth (usually youth) or other sources. The organist that yelled at me transferred to a different church, but that still doesn't change the fact that something happened that probably shouldn't have. The fact of the matter is that that while the musical attitude of the SDA denomination is evolving, there are still some issues that boil down to one thing: human nature. It is our natural inclination to want something to be orderly, and since our musical traditions are one of the only things we still seem to have from the "olden days", it is probably the hardest thing of all for us to give up.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This is the second of a series of articles about music in the SDA Church and other denominations. Next Friday: Music in other Protestant denominations*
Ellen White references taken from a compilation page on music: 
All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New King James Version, © Thomas Nelson, Inc. 

24 September, 2010

The Difference Between CCM and CCM

Sunday I was thinking of the lyrics of Audio Adrenaline's Hands and Feet, a song about being God's hands and feet, going where He sends us and doing His bidding. It fits the "narrative" of Contemporary Christian Music very nicely: going and helping the poor, the needy, and whomever God wants us to. But there's something different about it. Not only are the guys of Audio Adrenaline master songwriters, but the message is not one of "I will because You want me to," but one of "I will because I want to share You." It's not preachy at all, unlike some of the stuff I now hear on the radio. This kind of thing has created a division in my mind about two varieties of CCM: Contemporary Christian Music and Cliché Christian Music. Let's discuss.

First, let me define the two terms. Contemporary Christian Music is an ever-evolving term referring to the various Christian music of the day. Back in the 80s it was Amy Grant, Kieth Green and Petra. Now, it's Chris Tomlin, Matthew West and Newsboys. I'll refer to this as CCM1 for the rest of the article. Cliché Christian Music (CCM2)is a broad subcategory of CCM1 that includes songs full of musical and theological clichés and tautological themes. For the sake of argument, even though CCM2 is technically a part of CCM1, I will separate them completely as if they were two separate categories.

Let's compare and contrast the musical styles of the two CCMs. CCM1 tends to feature innovation in musicality: timeless melodies and chord progressions that you can immediately recognize. A uniqueness between bands and from song to song also embodies CCM1. For instance, when you hear a Newsboys song, you can usually tell before Peter starts singing that it's a Newsboys song. Even people like Amy Grant have a uniqueness that characterizes their music.

Musical styles that fall within CCM2 tend to run together. Chord progressions tend to be a boilerplate standard: nothing unique, innovative or complex. The instrumentation tends to be another boilerplate standard: an acoustic guitar played by the lead singer and an electric guitar playing a melodic part; bass player in the background or not at all; drums playing simple rhythms and fills; the ensemble often accompanied by a string quartet, trio or just a violin or cello.

Another thing that characterizes CCM2 in my mind is what I call "poor instrumental writing". Two classic examples of this are Tenth Avenue North's songs Love is Here and By Your Side. The songs open with a moving guitar part that doesn't really fit the theme of the song. This out of place instrumentation is a sign of poor consideration when songwriting. Granted, almost every other song an the album is very well written, especially its most recent single, Hold My Heart, but these two will forever immortalize in my mind that Tenth Avenue North is new at this and sometimes takes their influence from CCM2, especially lyrically.

This brings me to another distinction, one which is much more noticeable to the listener. CCM1 has rhymes and messages that are unique, not the blindly obvious like "fun" and "sun" or "cool" and "pool". Relient K's Matt Thiessen is my songwriting idol; his melodies, instrumentation and lyrics are always fresh and usually deal with not just one issue, but all issues. His tongue-in-cheek writing style flows effortlessly, showcasing his God-given gift.

One song that lyrically encompasses CCM2 is The Wrecking's You Remain. The rhythms and melody are simple, the lyrics are obvious, and the instrumentation is plain and uninteresting. It may be true, but it seems very poorly written or written in a rush. Yes, the message is true, but it is full of Christian clichés. The same can be said for a lot of the songs praise teams play in church nowadays: How Great is Our God is full of a Christian boilerplate message. Yes, it's a good song, but it's still uninteresting musically and lyrically.

This brings me to another issue: some of these songs have come to belong to CCM2 solely because they are part of a standard set of songs that are easy to learn and easy to do wrong. How Great is Our God was a great song when my band first started covering it. But now that everybody and their dog plays this song for almost every P&W set, it's become an empty mass of words and notes. The meaning is gone. For a song to be a part of CCM1, it must retain its meaning even after hearing it a literal thousand times.

Preachiness is another huge factor that makes even the innovative Casting Crowns migrate toward CCM2. I'm always hearing "I owe this," and "I owe that;" and "I have to do this," and "I need to do that." Herein lies the theological separation between songs like Hands and Feet by Audio Adrenaline and Follow You by Leeland with Brandon Heath. The former song emphasizes "[touching] the world like You've touched my life," whereas the second paints serving the needy as the noblest calling, a sort of "Look at me, I'm following Christ. This is how we follow Christ." It seems preachy, like a calling. The truth of the matter is that every calling is different. Here at Walla Walla University, the Student Missions department is always trying to send people out as missionaries, painting it like it's a call for everybody. True, the Great Commission (which Follow Up strives to follow) tells us to go to all the world, but "all the world" is different for me than for, say, my friend Katelyn. She's heading to the Philippines, but I'm staying right here. Why? I have been called to be an at-home missionary. We're each following our callings.

The final distinguishing factors between CCM1 and CCM2 lie solely on the performers: arrangement and performance. You can take a dead song and breathe new life into it with a good arrangement. You can take a stupendous song and kill it with a bad arrangement. Performance goes hand in hand: preparation and practice are key; the audience can tell when you've not rehearsed. (More advice on this to come in later articles.) A good arrangement avoids musical clichés and chord progressions. And usually, the artist who most often performs the song has the best arrangement. It's a rule of thumb that is good to follow.

The differences between Contemporary Christian Music and Cliché Christian Music may be small, but they create a gap between the two almost as wide as the Grand Canyon. The vast majority of new CCM that I hear falls under CCM2, with the best artists relatively unknown in the "mainstream" CCM world. Why am I writing this? I don't really know. But I want to distinguish between what I want to hear and don't want to hear, and I don't want to hear the same old, tired songs that have lost meaning. I don't want to hear dumbed down arrangements. And sure as the rising sun, I don't want to be preached at. Songwriters, keep this in mind.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This article is the first in a series about music and its effects in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other denominations. Next Friday: *

17 September, 2010

A Message on Race and Daniel

Imagine attending the Iowa State Fair on August 20th, 2010. Just as advertised, you had "Non-stop Fun"--until you left. Before your eyes, a group of thirty or so individuals with dark skin gather around a terrified man with lighter skin...and beat him senseless. This is not fiction. This actually happened. The thirty or forty individuals roamed around the Iowa State Fair and openly called it "Beat Whitey Night". If it had been a group of whites calling it "Beat Blackie Night", it would have been a national story, the offenders would have been hung in effigy by the ACLU and NAACP. But instead, we've heard almost nothing about it. And here's why.

It seems in today's world, only white people can be racist, only Christians can be bigoted against a particular religion, and only men can be sexist. Hate crimes, heinous as they are, are always committed by "majority" offenders. But the opposite is true: anybody can be racist, sexist, or bigoted against religion.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is heralded as a god of the Civil Rights movement. He was martyred for the cause, immortalizing him. And he's spinning in his grave so fast he's halfway to China. He envisioned a totally colorblind society, where race wouldn't matter. Organizations like the NAACP, by very nature, shred his dream. Affirmative Action struck it down by trying to elevate "minorities" to higher levels. I use quotes because calling whites the "majority" and everyone else "minorities" undercuts the Dr. King's life's work! Why is this? It's because we're still noticing race. We are not colorblind yet, and we as a society are perpetuating racism.

We call for diversity. We call for people to recognize our differences. What does that do? It separates people. Like iron and clay, our society is more separate now than it ever has been. The prophecy of Daniel is being fulfilled faster than we can see, in more ways than we can possibly know. Let me paint you a picture of the feet of iron and clay.

There exist no world empires. Yes, there are superpowers, but there is no world-spanning empire. The head of gold was Babylon, an empire which controlled just about the entire known world. The chest and arms of silver were Medo-Persia, who controlled the known world. The belly of bronze was Greece, who controlled the known world. The legs of iron was Rome, who controlled the known world. But today? Every nation has its ruler. Every country has its border. We as a race are not under one Earthly crown, but under many.

Now let's look at our own little "empire", the United States of America. Each State is like a nation, under the "emperor", the President. But each State is relatively independent, making their own laws, with their own court systems, and their own governments. We used to be completely united, but slowly we are separating; the States are red and blue now, iron and clay. No longer are they just States.

Within this nation exists yet another form of separation along the same lines: right now we are in the midst of a "cold civil war" between the political right and political left. Neither side wants the other side to succeed in any way, shape or form. Bipartisan anything is out the window because of inter-party tensions. Obama's blaming the Republicans for the economy, blaming Bush's tax rates. The GOP is blaming Obama for the crisis, citing the bloated spending bill he pushed through early on. Fingers are pointing at the other side, no matter what side you're on.

Still another separation exists: this thing called "race". I use quotes because I hate the term. We are all a race of beings. We bleed red, think freely, and are usually born with two arms and legs, ten fingers and toes, and a head. Why should skin color make somebody a different race, a different species? Why should we be separated? But we are. That's the clincher. We're separated like iron and clay; like black and white.

Religion is yet another way we find to distance ourselves from those different from us. Atheists shun all religions, though it seems like they attack only Christianity. Christians tend to shun Muslims, and Muslims tend to shun Christians. It's a vicious cycle of "My god is better than yours" that has been repeating itself since the beginning of sin, and will keep repeating itself until its end at the Trumpet's sounding.

We are living in the tips of the toes of the feet of iron and clay.We are a divided people, be it by race, creed or color. We are judged by the content of our character and the color of our skin. And we still have not been able to sing the words of that great American Negro-spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" And we won't until Jesus comes and ends all this.

Your Brother in Christ,

03 September, 2010

Depression in Retrospect

Depression is not cool. But neither is it the absence of God as so many try to tell me nowadays. You don't need meds to get through it, and you don't need a twelve-step program, but in hindsight, I probably should have acknowledged my problem and tried to get over it faster. This is my story and how I got through it.

It all started several years ago, in July of 2006. My family moved out to a twenty-acre piece of property, leaving behind a home we'd shared for the better part of twelve years. The day we finally moved out of that house was supposed to be a day when I had a bass lesson, but due to the fact that I was feeling sick, I cancelled. It would have been the last time I saw my teacher alive. Sunday morning, my parents broke the news to me that he had been killed in a head-on car accident. I started feeling guilt, feeling like I shouldn't have cancelled my lesson that week. But I wound up getting over it and moving on.

Later on, I wound up falling in love with a friend's sister. After a game of cat-and-mouse that I cleverly orchestrated, I revealed myself as her secret admirer. I asked her to ice cream and she said yes, but then after some thinking, decided that she wasn't ready for a relationship, and that it would be too awkward between us. I took it way too hard, throwing myself into a depressive identity crisis that lasted, for the most part, until March of 2010, totaling almost three years. During that entire time I didn't acknowledge that I had a problem because I didn't want to seem weak, I didn't want to go through treatment or see a shrink, and I didn't want to be preached at.

People would always ask me whether I was okay. I'd say yes, knowing full well that I was lying, both to my friends and myself. But I pretty much turned emo. No, I didn't do my hair backward (short in the front and long in the back) or wear skinny jeans. But I wrote poetry and lots of it. Most of it was very depressive, mourning about how I was wronged and had nowhere to go. I was able to write sonnets on a whim, something I wish I could do now. And my music tastes took a turn for the screamo. I never did listen to Underoath or stuff like that--more like Skillet, Red, know, hard rock and metal.

I finally managed to do some introspection and realized that my problem was that I had no sense of purpose, no sense of direction. I didn't know who I was. I was suffering through the fifth stage of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. The fifth stage is titled, "Identity vs. Role Confusion". I was thoroughly confused. And it didn't help that I was mature for my age and was also suffering through (and continue to suffer through) the sixth stage, "Intimacy vs. Isolation". My depression was rooted in the latter extremes of these two stages.

So let's talk symptoms really quickly. I was sleeping a lot. I was feeling down in the dumps constantly. And as a part of my identity crisis I kept finding myself wishing I could have a "George Bailey experience", to see how I had influenced people's lives. To see what it would be like if I'd never been born. This is a dangerous line of thinking, borderline suicidal, and I didn't even realize it! By the time I did, I told myself that I definitely should have gotten help. Even though I didn't think I was clinically depressed, I probably was.

I beat depression with a process that lasted from March of 2010 until probably mid-August. It started by facing my fears of inferiority and role confusion, deciding to switch my musical area of study from string bass to voice. I chose string bass because I thought that was what I wanted. But I was no good at it. I knew I was a better singer than I was a string bassist (though I'm probably a better bass guitarist than I am a vocalist). Then I decided to face my other fear, fear of isolation, by asking somebody out. I'd been through almost three years of seeing somebody I liked and saying, "I'd never have a chance with her." With an 0 for 2 record, I expected rejection and felt helpless to avoid it (a phenomenon I later discovered to be called "learned helplessness"). I decided to swallow the frog in my throat and ask somebody. Rejection or no, I was going to do it. I hesitated for a couple of days, and finally asked her to vespers after class. It was such a freeing feeling when she said yes, and that Friday night was the best Friday night I'd ever had. And even though it didn't work out, it was the kick in the butt that I needed to realize that what I was dealing with was beatable without meds, shrinks, or being beaten over the head with a Bible.

That brings me to something that I'm sick and tired of. The entire three years, I heard the same message: "If you're depressed, you need Jesus." Maybe at first I was searching for God, but once I found Him, my depression went away. It was still feeling that isolation, that confusion. And the same message also told me that if you don't feel love, all you need is Jesus, and you'll feel loved like never before. But the thing is that I already had Jesus. I knew He loved me, and I was reminded of that every time I thought of the miracles worked to get me up to Walla Walla, to get my family to the Ranch, and so on. There were songs and skits that painted such a stark picture of the love of Jesus that my emotions got the better of me every time I saw them, causing me to cry openly. No, it wasn't Jesus that I was missing. In fact, God was all I had, all I was hanging onto. I remember praying dozens of times that He'd come and take us all away from this world full of crap. I remember sitting silently in Heubach Chapel, to me the "Holy of Holies" at WWU, and feeling the Holy Spirit touch me, feeling an angel sitting next to me. That was the day that I'd walked out of church because I was hearing the same empty message and the same empty songs. It was like calling tech support and them telling me to do something that I knew wouldn't work.

The theological issues here lies with the fundamental inaccuracy in mainstream Chrisitanity that a relationship with God solves all your problems. The truth is that a relationship with God gives you something to hope for, gives you an attitude of compassion. It's not a quick-fix for your problems. And that's why when some Christians don't get an prayer answered in the way they want, they lose hope. They think God has wronged them in some way. I thought that often enough until I realized that when you don't get what you want, it means only one thing: God has something better planned for you than what you thought you wanted. Something that is beyond your wildest dreams. The road is narrow, not easy. And if you fall, it's like Peter walking on the water. Jesus will be right there to pick us up if we want Him to. And feeling down is not the absence of God, but merely a part of life. Remember that: depression doesn't necessarily mean you need Jesus. You just need to keep hanging on until He makes a way out. Or until you decide to pick yourself up and get over it like I did.

Your Brother in Christ,

02 September, 2010

Hiatus is over

Well, it's over. Camp is, not this blog. And that's why I'm going to start posting again. But remember, if I run out of thoughts, I'll run out of entries. So ask me a question if you have one! Are you wondering about something having to do with Christianity? Do you want to play Devil's Advocate? Go ahead! I'm wanting your questions!

Your Brother in Christ,

04 June, 2010

Out there.....

A week and a half ago as I was waiting for my overpriced and undersized pizza at the Student Association Center, I watched a History Channel special on alien abduction, covering most notably the Betty and Barney Hill case. Two people also came forward about foreign objects in their bodies, one of whom still had the object inside him. The episode chronicled a series of tests researchers conducted on the tiny, metallic object, revealing that it was magnetic, gave off several milligauss of electromagnetic radiation, and gave off two different radio frequencies. The EM and RF stopped when they surgically removed the "implant".

This got me to thinking. As a science fiction lover and writer, I can't even begin to discount the theory that aliens may live on other planets. I believe in UFOs. I believe that the evidence for alien abduction, particularly in the Hill Abduction, is definitely legitimate. But I also believe that not all aliens are bad.

Let's theorize for a moment that there are other worlds out there. If God is as loving and compassionate as we believe Him to be, with that same affinity for free choice, would He not have offered the same choice to them that He did us? And given that choice, let's say that the caretakers of any given planet chose to obey God. That would make them sinless and perfect, Edenic, as I label them in my science fiction stories. But let's say that the caretakers went the opposite way and, like humankind, chose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This would put them under sin like us, and they, like us, would need a Messiah.

If this is the case and we are not the only sinful world, the scope of things is much bigger, much broader. When Jesus died, He would have borne the sins of not just humanity, but every other sinful race. An entire universe of sins would have been such a weight that not even the Son of God could keep from saying, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?"

This does create a small problem: if Jesus died with the sins of the universe on His shoulders--of the fallen angels, of mankind, and of any other sinful race--why did He choose our particular little, blue speck for His ministry. Either we are the only world that sinned, making us a pathetic failure of a species and Satan's only target, or Jesus transcended, as He usually does, our entire understanding. In my science fiction stories, every sinful planet had a Messiah, all of them appearing at the same time and dying at the same moment. This satisfies the need for Jesus as a teacher across the universe. It also serves to give those races the same hope that Christianity now has.

Now, I'm not saying that this is exactly what happened. It's just a theory, but it opens up a whole new can of worms. The thought that Jesus died not only for us, but for the fallen angels and Satan's almost too much for the human mind to fathom. I think we like to get locked into the feeling that we're special, that we're the ones Jesus gave His life to save. But that gets us locked into a selfish mindset that we're the only ones that need saving.

In conclusion, as a Christian, I can't possibly deny the existence of intelligent life on other planets. I also can't deny, based on so much evidence of UFO sightings and alien abductions, that all alien races are benevolent. But one thing is for sure: if any should choose to sin and fall under its poisonous fog, we have a Savior, no matter whether we are human, angel or hra'vakh, that loves us enough to without hesitation step in and give His life, to die as one who shouldn't have, so that the price for our missteps could be paid and so that we could one day spend eternity with our Creator.

Your Brother in Christ,

28 May, 2010

Late entry

I'm really busy, so expect an entry tomorrow morning.

Your Brother in Christ,


21 May, 2010

Adamant Abstention from Adornment

I read an article which mentioned a pastor's wife who would wear her wedding ring at work but take it off when in a primarily Adventist setting. Somebody saw her at work and stared at her for a few seconds. Then that person had the gall to say, "Oh, I didn't recognize you with your ring on." The moment I read this, I about blew my top. Granted, it was in the 1980s when wedding rings were finally considered customary and then permitted. But the amount of condescension in that one sentence I highly doubt even Lady Catherine de Bourgh could have equalled.

In June of 2007, amidst what I now see was a very deep depression, I wrote a short story which became a novel about a girl whose life hit rock bottom. She attempted suicide, but through a Deus ex machina in the form of a kind upperclassman, she survived and became a Seventh-day Adventist. The pastor of the church in Lamond, California, a fictional town 20 minutes from Redding, was Noah Murphy. He felt using his given name was too sacrilegious and went by Murphy. He was married, but refused to wear a wedding band. When Clarissa, the protagonist, came to church the first day, the youth Sabbath School class welcomed her, but the pastor did not. The long, pink scars on her wrists, combined with the necklace she wore caused Murphy to shun her--and to shun her new boyfriend, the man who had saved her life. Later on in the story, he saves the two of them from a potentially disastrous encounter caused by heavily spiked punch, and later still he officiates their wedding. But even though I made him a good guy in the end, I still stereotyped him for a reason.

In the Adventist church, plainness is heavily encouraged. In the 1866 standards for dress, we were to be "scrupulously plain". Adornment of any kind, including but not limited to makeup, jewelry, elegant dresses, pearls, and so on and so forth, was outlawed not only by the Church, but by Scripture, citing a particular passage in Isaiah that was taken somewhat out of context. In my own family, the condescension produced by the Adventist church in the last quarter of the twentieth century has driven people away for forbidding things that were culturally appropriate, that were customary.

It seems that a lot of people view plain dress, and abstention from wearing jewelry and other adornment as requirements for membership, even as requirements for salvation. They are in reality teachings, not requirements. And I question these teachings. Why? They are so rooted in the keeping of standards as divinely ordained that we lose sight of the reason they are there in the first place. The reason for discouraging the wearing of jewelry, makeup, fancy clothes, etc. is so that we focus not on ourselves, but on Jesus. By judging people (Matthew 7:1) for wearing jewelry, how are we promoting the love of Jesus? By making sure that others follow our now irrelevant standards, who are we like? Read the Gospels and you will see that the same kind of enforcement was the pet control scheme of the Pharisees. If we weren't as flexible as we are, we'd have thrown out anybody who suggested that wearing a wedding ring was all right!

Another thing that makes the teaching of abstention from adornment seem almost Pharisaical is church attire. If we are to dress plainly, simply, without adornment, why do we almost require that people wear formal or semi-formal clothing to church? What struck me as the most hypocritical was when I saw in church a woman wearing a flaming magenta dress, sporting a sterling brooch the size of a golf ball, and wearing a hat which matched the dress. I was confused because I'd always been told wearing hats was irreverent. And aren't brooches jewelry? And what about that magenta? It attracts attention! Could it be a cultural difference? I still don't really know.

My sister has a pair of magnetic stud earrings that she could wear without getting her ears pierced. She got them for a fairly low price, maybe twenty dollars. They look great on her, and if somebody told her to take them off because they're jewelry I'd step in and defend her. Why? Because those earrings aren't to show status. They aren't to draw attention. They aren't gaudy, aren't kitsch. If you make my sister take off her twenty dollar earrings, then you should take off your five hundred dollar suit coat, sixty dollar tie and eighty dollar shoes because you, my friend, are no better than a Pharisee.

So again I ask, if we condemn (Mt. 7:1!) our fellows for wearing jewelry or makeup, what are we doing to further God's kingdom? Are we spreading the love of Christ or are we being legalistic, expecting perfection from our followers? Is it really a theological issue, or is it one of the last ways the Church controls their members? Wedding rings are fine in a lot of circles, but there are people, the fictional Noah Murphy for instance, that refuse because wedding rings are jewelry.

I myself plan on wearing two wedding rings: one that the Church will approve of and one that it won't. One will be a band of gold, and another will be a tattoo, a symbol of permanence. And will I want to hide the fact that I have my wife's name tattooed on my finger? No way! I would wear it with pride, reaffirming my love for her every day regardless of whether or not I'm wearing that band of gold. The letter of the law says no jewelry, no tattoos, no adornment. But the spirit of the law is much different: instead of focusing on looking good, we should focus on Jesus Christ. It's what He would have preached.

Your Brother in Christ,

14 May, 2010

Is Adventist Education Really Worth the Cost?

I would love to do a case study on this topic. But sadly, a weekly blog entry doesn't hazard months' or even years' worth of research. Instead, I'm just going to state my opinion on the matter and show you the reasons why we have Adventist schools and why in the long run you will be better off either attending or sending your children to an Adventist school.

Adventists have always been about excellence: excellence in character, excellence in life, excellence in health, excellence in spirituality, and the list goes on to no end. But one of the things that we as a Church have striven to provide since the very beginning was excellence in education. Our matriarch, our prophet Ellen White vehemently opposed public schooling. Conditions were horrible, classrooms were cramped, and children were being taught the ways of the worldly wise men. She decried public education for cultural as well as theological reasons, and said that children were better off waiting until age eight or nine to attend public school so that the families could set their children on the right path before they went to school. Then as a response to public education, we came up with Adventist schools.

These schools strove to promote Adventist ideals, teach children about God, and prepare them for life. That is what Adventist schools strive to do today, and I believe that in modern day society we need a good quality Adventist education more than ever before. Modern day society teaches us that we will never be good enough to do anything. We idolize models and movie stars, swooning, "I could never be as good an actor as [for instance] Ben Affleck," and "I could never be as pretty as [for instance] Kate Beckinsale." But God teaches the contrary, that everybody is unique, has unique gifts and talents, and that everybody is equally capable. I admit myself to fawning over Thomas Tallis and Sir John Tavener, two composers with amazing, God-given abilities that have immortalized them (Tavener is still alive, too!). God, though, has given me a love for composition, and these great composers are merely sources of inspiration and enjoyment. Why is this? I believe it's due to the fact that I have gone through Adventist schooling almost my entire life.

Adventist schools, when they do their job properly, encourage the downtrodden, empower the powerless, and educate the uneducated. They are, or should be, warm and friendly atmospheres that make learning into something more than just memorizing facts. Adventist schools teach ethics, life lessons, and use care in teaching children what they need to learn. This environment is like the womb, a place for children to develop in safety.

Many parents choose not to send their children to Adventist schools because they can't justify the cost. All Adventist schools are private institutions because they are parochial schools. By definition, the Government cannot teach one particular religion in any given school (nor can they prohibit the exploration or exercise of Christianity, but that's a different issue for another time). The fact that they are private schools makes them run on tuition instead of being funded by tax dollars. In order to keep the budget in line with operating costs, tuition is quite high, with some schools running hundreds of dollars per month per student. In this economy it makes perfect sense to pull the children out of private school and send them to public school to save money, while giving them the spiritual education at home. This will easily satisfy any theological qualms that prevent us from sending our children to public school. But what about the other side of the coin? White's reasons for disapproving of public schooling were twofold, as I mentioned earlier: theological and cultural.

Public schools are far from a wholesome environment. Harsh language is rampant, sexual promiscuity is shrugged off, and God is notably absent from the culture. Children are taught not by their teachers, but by their peers to conform to society. Musical choices, acceptable body shapes and weights, lifestyle decisions: peers affect all of these. We've always been told that we should choose carefully the people we make our friends. In public schools, Adventists' conservative values could be seen as weakness or weirdness, making students unpopular. The quest for popularity may lead the students to make choices that go against their beliefs. Peer pressure is a powerful force that Satan uses to snare today's youth.

So what do we do to keep our kids on the straight and narrow? Even in Adventist schools we see teen pregnancy and sexual promiscuity, language, underage drinking, disbelief in God and a plethora of other stains. But attending an Adventist school gives students the opportunity to make the right decisions, with encouragement from teachers and peers. They are more likely to take the right path if they are in an environment that is conducive to it. Ellen White was absolutely right: it's better for children to stay home and be grounded in their faith and lifestyle before going to public school. But Adventist schools strive to eliminate the qualms we have about public schooling. The immense cost of educating a child in Adventist schools from elementary to post-secondary is a pittance compared to the potential for making the right choices versus making the wrong choices. Parents, think about it: if you're so worried about money that you're willing to rob your children of the wholesome environment of an Adventist school, are you really trusting God? He wants the best for us, and Adventist education is the closest I have come to finding the ideal. I am here at Walla Walla University because God moved mountains for me to be here. Why? He wants me to have this wholesome Adventist education. And if He moves mountains for me, then why not for your kids? It just makes sense: an Adventist education will be better, bottom line. You want the best for your kids, and so does God. If you can afford Adventist schooling, I highly suggest you take advantage. Even if you have to tighten your belts and count every penny, it will be worth it. Remember, this world is not our home. And when we prepare our children for the bigger picture, God will smile and He will take care of it.

Your Brother in Christ,

12 May, 2010

Wednesday Bonus: The Second Adam

This is going to be a short one, but I came upon an epiphany in class today. Jesus's nature was that of Adam before sin. This is why He is referred to as the Second Adam. Just as Adam, He had the ability to sin, but did not have a sinful nature. When He did not sin and yet gave His life, it was like a matter-antimatter annihilation, like dividing by zero! It totally obliterated the eternal death penalty for those who accepted His death. That's they beauty of it all: Somebody took our place, an innocent Lamb. And He did it without hesitation. As Jonathan Henderson says, the very moment of the first sin, the plan was set in motion. Jesus knew that somebody had to die to save everybody. Without another thought, without any consideration, He threw up His hand and said, "I'll do it." Acting out of a love we can never truly understand, He gave everything for His children. And if even one of them accepted Him, He still would have done it.

Your Brother in Christ,

07 May, 2010

Sanctified, Justified, or...Both?

When I mention 1888, Jones, and Waggoner, what comes to mind? For some of you, nothing comes to mind. For others, it means debate. The debate was whether or not we are to keep the Law for salvation, or whether it is the Blood of Christ that gives us salvation. Most of us today would agree that the Blood is what sets us free, but also that the Law is important. Some would say that it is just the Blood, and that nothing else matters. Others will go the other extreme and say that if you don't keep the Law--all 10 Commandments--perfectly, you will be damned. So which is it: Sanctification, Justification, or both? Before we find a definitive answer to the question, we have to note that no definitive answer can really be found in this situation. It's a matter of interpretation, exegetical or otherwise, mixed with cultural, political, and other biases. That is one thing that compels me to believe that the correct answer is both to trust that you have salvation by faith, but also that it is important to keep laws such as the Sabbath. The origin of this conflict had its roots in the young SDA Church.

The passage so many Protestant denominations used to denounce the Sabbath as dated and no longer applicable was Galatians 3:23-25. As it reads in the King James Version, "But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." They cited this "schoolmaster" to mean the Mosaic Law in its entirety, including the Ten Commandments. Early Seventh-day Adventists pushed a different interpretation, that the "schoolmaster" was actually the sacrificial system. Their emphasis was in keeping the Sabbath, which was what separated them from the "animals"--the liturgical and other organized churches, or as they called organized religion, Babylon.
Allow me to explain the likening of organized, Sunday-keeping denominations to Babylon. In the time of the Millerite movement, the Roman Catholic Church was seen as the Beast in Revelation; it was the only entity of power to fulfill the 1260-day prophecy. This was preached across the entire movement, and those that followed the message of the Millerite Movement, most notably the Seventh-day Adventists, followed this belief. This was one of the reasons that the SDA Church was not an organized denomination until they started giving out credentials in 1853: they didn't want this hierarchical structure that got in the way of the individual's relationship with God. Similarly, Babylon, the Roman Catholic Church and other organized churches, kept Sunday as Sabbath instead of the Seventh Day, Saturday. The emphasis on Sunday-worship as the Mark of the Beast caused the more legalistic interpretation of the controversial passage in Galatians. Then, around 1888, the fledgling Church received a hand with two wild cards: E. G. Waggoner and A. J. Jones. They began to preach a different interpretation of the Galatians passage, that it did in fact mean what it said. The Law was no longer something necessary to point us to Christ because Christ already came and died. He Himself said that he "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:17-18, NKJV). This means that we are still under that which is not fulfilled, which means essentially the set-in-stone Commandments, at least in my interpretation. But the early Adventists didn't see it that way. They saw this interpretation of the Galatians passage as a threat to the Sabbath. The Church leaders tried to silence the message because of it, but Ellen White spoke out in favor of letting them preach.

Today, though, I often see the message Waggoner and Jones preached taken to the extreme. The "Justification Party" is the road to the Once Saved, Always Saved doctrine. This doctrine, one that Adventists reject, essentially states that works are worth nothing and that through faith and grace alone are we saved. The doctrine is wholly unbiblical, for James clearly states in his epistle, "What good is it to say that you have faith, when you don't really do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you?" (Contemporary English Version). It is true that we should show that we have faith in God. We should follow Christ's example, and doesn't that include following the Law, particularly the Ten Commandments? Many people use Galatians 3:24, 25 to throw out the Fourth Commandment, but I think that it just reinforces our need to keep the Law. Jesus kept it, so why shouldn't we? I don't believe we're sealed forever once we accept God. It's something that the Once Saved, Always Saved doctrine hasn't ever explained: what if you decide that you don't want to be a part of God's kingdom after all? And also, if Salvation is by grace alone, why are some saved and others lost? It gets very dicey, and blooms into skunk cabbage like Predestination, which undermines the very nature of God.

Wrapping everything up, I can see that it's plain that salvation is primarily by faith and grace, stemming from Christ's sacrifice on the cross. But along with that, we need to keep the Law. The analogy I've used for years is that salvation is a gift. Jesus, in His death, gave it to everybody. Some of us choose to accept it, but some of us toss it on a dresser and forget about it. There is always an opportunity to open it, but for one to really want to open it, one must first know the Man who gave it to them. In order to do that, one has to align oneself with His teachings, ideals, and Law. For us to understand Him, and understand His gift, we have to understand His position. It's as simple as that. The Law is there for our benefit, not our detriment. And while we cannot as humans keep it perfectly, we do know that the love and blood of Christ blots out "a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). And that, my friends, is the reason we can rejoice.

Your Brother in Christ,

16 April, 2010

Personal, not Passive

Who is God? That is the question that was on my mind as I staggered my way through life. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I kept Sabbath but hated it. I read my Bible, and yet nothing I learned gave me the sense of power that people said it did. I drifted alone in the sea of life, always knowing that the Lighthouse was there, but never seeing it through the fog. I was content where I was for a while, but then things started to happen. And when the sea got rough, I began to cry out to the lighthouse keeper, begging Him to light the lamp. What I got was more amazing than I could ever imagine.

I grew up in the SDA Church. I was taught that God was somebody who sat back and watched me, coming down only in church, prayer, and when we called upon Him (Psalm 50:15). He was distant and enigmatic. This perception stayed with me for years and years. I thanked God for everything good, and anything bad I just pushed off on the Devil. But then we decided to move and my life's seas got rough.

Like Abraham, we up and left the place we'd been living for 11 years and moved to the 20 acres that would become the Lazy Oak Ranch. My last day in the old house, I got sick and cancelled what would have been my last bass lesson, for that Saturday, my bass teacher died in a head-on collision. I loved him as a mentor, and it tore me apart. But he would have wanted me to soldier on, so I did. I got over it very quickly, and decided to carry on his legacy in some way. It kept me going. But still, God was distant.

The second rock my life-ship hit was love. I'd gone almost 17 years saying, "I don't need to date anybody. I'll just concentrate on living my life, and when it happens, it happens." But it happened. It was a field trip to the pumpkin farm a couple weeks before I turned 17, and I suddenly realized an infatuation with my best friend's sister. That Valentine's Day, I became her secret admirer, and after a couple months, I revealed my identity. A week later, I asked her out. Her initial yes was music to my ears, but she wasn't ready. Again, I was devastated. I took it way too personally, and slipped into an almost three year long depression.

This depression was perpetuated in one romantic failure after another (most of which were me not getting off my butt). College was stressful until I changed from Computer Science to Music Education. But my life was still a total pain. I blamed everything on my status as a bachelor, myself being a very romantic person and needing some outlet for that pent-up quixotic inclination. It finally took the engagement of the one person I couldn't get over to snap me back into alignment.

By this time, I'd resorted to living day-to-day, not setting any goals except declaring my major as music, and leaning heavily on God. It didn't help that we were smack dab in the middle of the largest financial hardship my family had ever seen, brought on in the largest economic recession since the Great Depression. Miracle after miracle happened, never at any time but the most desperate. It was just like the Widow of Zarephath, when God provided for her son and her. There was no way I could let that go past, and everything that happened brought me closer to God.

It wasn't until this February that I really contemplated my relationship with God. At The Awakening, a student-led worship service here at Walla Walla University, I came one Sabbath because I didn't have to sing in choir, which usually precluded me. I stayed for almost all of it, but the message was the same one I'd heard for years: if you just let God handle your life, you'll always be happy. This was the tail-end of my depression, so I'd shut off by the end of the message. When the second set of songs began, I had gotten no blessing and I didn't see the empty words of the songs I sang giving me anything either. So I walked out. I deposited the contents of my wallet, $2, into the offering basket and went back to my room. But God didn't stop tugging at my heart. The Spirit kept tugging on my heart, saying, "Hey, Michael, I want to spend time with you. So you didn't find me in The Awakening. Big, fat, hairy deal. You know where I'll be." I grabbed my notebook and my Bible, and headed for Heubach chapel. It's my favorite place to spend time with God because it's usually deserted and silent. Just like Elijah, that day I couldn't find God in the wind. I couldn't find Him in the earthquake. I couldn't find Him in the fire. And I know that if I couldn't find him in the Awakening, I most certainly wouldn't find Him in the massive Black History Month church service that was happening next door to the chapel. I spent some time thinking about God, talking aloud to Him, and actually feeling the Spirit next to me.

This led me to correlate God to a Big Brother figure. He's somebody I look up to, ask for advice, and He stands up for me. He knows what's best for me, even though I might want something completely different. It's this personal relationship with God that I enjoy, that I love. And when I don't have this relationship, I really miss it. It's not about rules or regulations. It's about having what Enoch had. He was so close to God that he disappeared one day. God took him to heaven, not because he was a perfect follower of the Law, but because he was so very close, spending every moment with God. This leads me to believe that a relationship with God is not this lukewarm, passive acquaintance, but a deep, personal relationship. God is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. And if you stick as close to Him, I think your salvation is guaranteed.

Next week, I'll talk about Sanctification vs. Justification.

Your Brother in Christ,

09 April, 2010

The Sabbath Was Made for Man

As an Adventist, the Sabbath is a crucial part of my life. It is a respite from the stresses of the week, an excuse to spend time with God instead of doing work. But that's only now that I'm an old and grey 20-year-old. When I was a kid, it came with a long list of don'ts and meant soup, Church, and boredom. At the Post-Vespers small group meeting on Good Friday, we discussed the motives involved, and tried to come to some kind of understanding as to what keeping the Sabbath actually means.

Let's start with the core Adventist doctrine of the Sabbath, Fundamental Belief #20. God rested on the 7th day and made it holy (or set aside). It was a memorial of Creation, a time for Him to spend special time with His children Adam and Eve. Jesus kept the Sabbath, even in death. Yes, He healed on the Sabbath, and yes, He picked grain on the Sabbath. But when criticized, he responded, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. I'd always heard that text, but not really known what it meant until I did some thinking. I'll get more into that in a moment, but first, allow me to rag on the Pharisaical (yes, I said it) Sabbath-keeping of many Adventists.

The biggest argument I have here is with the usage (not interpretation) of Isaiah 58:13-14, the famous "Turn away your foot from the Sabbath" text. I've heard many an Adventist use this text to bar people from doing certain acts on the Sabbath: everything from swimming to sports to playing Fallout 3. Talking about don'ts makes the Sabbath very limiting and tends to repel younger Adventists. The particularly repelling don'ts in my mind:
  • Don't go swimming
  • Don't watch secular movies, play secular board or video games
  • Don't play sports
  • Don't go out to eat
  • Don't cook
  • Don't read anything secular
  • Don't play card games (except for Trees and Flowers, Birds and Animals, etc.)
When we are told what we can't do, but not what we can, it tends to make the Sabbath less favorable. When we are kids, we can't quite understand the kind of personal relationship with God that I now take so much delight in. Yes, it's good to teach kids not to break the Sabbath, but many times parents nap while the kids die of boredom. They don't provide any alternatives. And when that happens, when nobody tells us what we can do, it becomes an even bigger day of don'ts.

So let's go over what should be done on the Sabbath. In my experience, there is no definitive answer. We go to Sabbath School and Church every week, and we eat lunch, be it at potluck or at home, either early- or mid-afternoon. But the sanctioned Sabbath activities aren't really clearly defined. The only blatantly encouraged things that come to mind:
  • Nature hikes
  • Bible reading
  • Devotional book reading
  • Sit around or sleep

What's going on here? Why are there so few dos and so many don'ts? Are we so concerned with breaking the Sabbath that we care only about what not to do? That's why I compare us to the Pharisees. They yelled at Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, and for picking grain on the Sabbath. Then Jesus tore them a new one. He said, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. What does this mean? Well, it seems to me like Jesus is saying that the rules for Sabbath keeping are more lax than the Pharisees made them out to be.

Let's not say that we can take this to mean that we can do whatever we want on the Sabbath. It's not that at all. Instead He was making a statement, which I shall paraphrase, "Hey! I was hungry, so I decided to eat something. Where's the problem with that? The Sabbath is not about what you shouldn't do, but rather what you should." The original purpose of the Sabbath, as stated earlier, was for God to spend time with Adam and Eve. Nowadays, I think a lot of people view it as a time to contemplate God, Jesus, and the Cross. But I don't think it's really even about that. It's about taking five and spending time with God, not because he wants us to do something with Him, but rather that He wants to do something with us. Remember the wonderful thought in 1 John 3:1 - "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we are called children of God!" It makes me come to tears thinkin about it, that the most powerful Being in existence calls us His children! And he's proud to do it, too! Just think of the parable of the prodigal son. When he came back, his father threw a party and killed the fattened calf, something he was saving for a special occasion feast. God is like that with us - every time we turn away and do our own thing, and then see that the world has nothing for us, He will always take us back. Sabbath is a time to return to God, the One that loves us more than life itself, so that He can see us again, and so that we can visit with Him. I'll talk more about this personal God next time.

Your Brother in Christ,

02 April, 2010

Culture Shock: A Point of Contention

Many people ask the question: Why are our young people leaving the church? Many answers percolate through the minds of our church members. But none of them are definitive, and all of them are abstract. "It's the music," some say. The reasoning is that either the youth won't accept the divinely appointed music or that the elders are too traditionalistic and won't accept the music of today. Another rationale is that the church services are too boring for the youth, who are kept coming by flashy and complex performances, dramatic portrayals of Biblical events or abstract concepts, things the Church has long frowned upon. Another explanation is that the youth are simply troubled, seeking solace and acceptance in the arms of the whore of Babylon. But the reality is simple: The decline in youth attendance and activity corresponds to all of those reasons. The cause is even simpler: A subtle yet deadly form of culture shock.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church arose in rural, 19th century Michigan from the Millerite Movement. The Church's values largely corresponded to the values at the time. Simplicity was king, frugality was the norm; it was the common sense values of the American Frontier that drove the core values of early Adventism. Therein lies the problem: we as a Church allowed the core values of the 19th century American Frontier become the core values of the Adventist church, labeled them as divinely ordained, and thus they cannot change. It is true that some things have indeed changed: Wedding bands, for instance, are now considered a cultural symbol and are permitted when previously they were considered jewelry and disallowed. But we still have a long way to go in reforming the Adventist church, taking cultural values and breaking their dogmatic statuses away.

Exegesis and hermeneutics are two terms referring to the study and interpretation of a piece of written information such as the Bible. Biblical exegesis in a Protestant denomination such as Adventism relies heavily on the rejection of the Roman Catholic Church's allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. Such was done by Protestants from Martin Luther to William Miller. But Protestants' literal interpretive methods pose several conundrums. The parables of Jesus, particularly the Rich Man and Lazarus, are clearly full of figurative language (Luther's philosophy was to interpret literally except in cases such as this). But then what about the Old Testament God, a God of vengeance, of war, and of death?

The thing exegetes have to take into account when studying the Scriptures is cultural context. In the Old Testament, the culture was very collectivist. It was about the group and not the individual. That is why Achan, his entire family, and all of his animals were killed after the spoils of war were found in his tent. If the head of the family broke the law, everybody was held responsible. In the American individualist culture, this seems to be an unfair punishment. But in the days of the Israelites, it was perfectly acceptable. Similarly, in the culture of the Old Testament, war was between gods. The reason for the Israelites' many conquests was to prove to the Lord's enemies that He was indeed the One true God. While in today's age it seems barbaric, it was culturally necessary for the wiping out of nations like Canaan and cities like Jericho. Let's not forget that Rahab helped the Israelites and was therefore saved from the destruction of Jericho.

My point in this is not to give you a Bible class or a history lesson, but to point out that God works across cultural boundaries. When we try and say that the 19th century values of Adventism are divinely ordained, or that the Old Testament is clearly fallacious because it paints a different portrait of the Lord, we ourselves are trying to be God. We are trying to put God in a box, and anybody who knows anything about Him knows that no box can contain Him. What the elders in the Church need to realize is that cultures change. And with the changing cultures, so changes the way we should look at our values and doctrines. As long as we keep the same fundamental truths the same, the little things can change. But the younger members of the church also have to realize that with the advent of things like computers, cell phones, and contemporary music, we have an entirely different culture than those who might be older. Things we may find perfectly acceptable may be culturally inappropriate in their eyes. We need to respect the culture of those who came before us while finding ways to change the status quo without being blatantly offensive.

Remember, we may be the future of the church, but the current culture is vastly different. We're not trying to knock down the Berlin Wall here. What we as young people need to do is realize that so that we can coexist peacefully with our fellow Adventists. One of Satan's favorite games is destroying our relationships with God. So stand up to him and stay with the Church.

Your Brother in Christ,