Neil Postman, prophet.

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“At different times in our history, different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Boston was the center of a political radicalism that ignited a shot heard round the world – a shot that could not have been fired any other place but the suburbs of Boston. At its report, all Americans, including Virginians, became Bostonians at heart. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York became the symbol of the idea of a melting-pot America – or at least a non-English one – as the wretched refuse from all over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread over the land their strange languages and even stranger ways. In the early twentieth century, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America. If there is a statue of a hog butcher somewhere in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of the time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial adventures. If there is no such statue, there ought to be, just as there is a statue of a Minute Man to recall the Age of Boston, as the Statue of Liberty recalls the Age of New York.

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

From Amusing Ourselves to Deathby Neil Postman (written in 1985)

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Nothing of these cynical utopianisms…

On reading Augustine, Russell Moore says,

“Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.

How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?

“Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.”

Russell Moore, in a longer post on The Gospel Coalition here.

Worship Leaders Must Read

VL01D336R8.jpgTwo weeks ago my fellow church staff guys and I got to attend the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. There’s always so much I could say about this week each year, but right now I’ll limit it just to books. One of the benefits of going to conferences for pastors is the exposure to resources. At the Shepherds’ Conference they set up a huge circus-size tent, which becomes the conference bookstore. And one of the best things about these three days is having a bunch of chances between sessions to walk the book tent.

I got to thinking this week about my role as corporate worship director at my church, and how necessary it’s been for me to keep reading, even during the extra busy times of the year. For pastors (and I think for professionals in general), you’ve got to keep a regimen of regular reading, to immerse yourself in ideas and encouragements. It will fuel your spiritual health, and your practical creativity and productivity. You may only rarely, if ever, find the one book that totally changes your mindset about something, or gives you the practical tip to solve some ridiculous problem; but you’ll probably see fruit steadily over time, as your maturity and your creative chops refine.

It’s been a lotta work over the years to find the best books specifically written for worship leaders. So I thought I’d list a few of my top picks, for books that have been extra helpful and encouraging, and give you a few short reasons why.

DISCLAIMER: People who love books, and especially Christians who love books, talk all the time about “must-reads.” I often have to keep in mind that there are seriously important books out there that’ll absolutely benefit you as a Christian, and that you really should read. BUT, the only real “must-read” is the Bible, so don’t let anything take you away from time spent with God there.

So here goes with an uber-limited, non-inclusive list of some top picks:

  1. Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin. This book was the first really solid, biblical treatment of worship that I came across, and would still be the first one I’d recommend to a worship leader looking for books. It’s excellent, well-rounded, readable, clarifying, and includes both a general biblical theology of worship, and a great discussion of the role of a worship leader.
  2. Doxology and Theology by Matt Boswell (and other contributors). In my opinion, this one goes to the next layer of depth after Worship Matters. Boswell provides some helpful, practical stuff, in some areas that Worship Matters doesn’t get to. Each chapter hits a different topic, and is written by a different worship pastor; the whole book is worth it just for the first of these, by Boswell. He clarifies the job and role of worship and music leaders in the church perhaps better than I’ve read anywhere else.
  3. Engaging With God by David Peterson. This is the “deep end of the theological pool” book every worship leader should aspire to read at some point. And lots of church folks (leaders and otherwise) would benefit from it too. I was at a conference a few years ago where Bob Kauflin mentioned this book in one of his talks. He asked how many of us had read it, and challenged the over half of us who hadn’t, to read it by that time next year – that we really HAD to get to it. And after reading it, I knew why he loves it and has been helped by it so much. For what is, essentially, a shorter version of this book, check out True Worship by Vaughan Roberts. We sell it at our church book counter, and it’s a GREAT little primer on theology of worship in general, and in the gathered church.
  4. Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper. This book is really one of those rare game-changers, in my opinion. Another book that’s great for church leaders (not just the worship/music leaders), and also for any church member or attender. Cosper clarifies the purpose of the church worship gathering, and gives some invaluable practical advice for how it should be done according to Scripture’s principles.
  5. The Art of Worship by Greg Scheer. This is probably the best practical manual I’ve seen for worship leading, that’s also written from a great theological foundation. Here you’ll find commentary on worship trends, and practical tips for singing, arranging vocals and instruments, band dynamics, managing teams, running rehearsals, and lots of other good stuff. This will help you develop your skill set as a music and worship director, without getting gooey and weird, or unbiblical. Which is sometimes hard to find when you’re looking for practical tips.

So there you have it. I’ve left out a few, so maybe I’ll include a PART 2 post for some more in the near future. What did I leave off? Any “must-reads” you wish were mentioned above??

 

A Case for Reading Good Books and Singing Good Songs

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In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.

Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.

May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.

In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.

In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.

I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.

Great books: after you’ve scaled the mountain.

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A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.

The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.

So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.

It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.

Writers’ Round Table

If you’re interested in the craft of writing at all, the following video is filled with some pretty great stuff. It’s Doug Wilson, Alan Jacobs, and N.D. Wilson (son of Doug), talking about all kinds of writing-related miscellany. Some of it is a little rough and extemporaneous in the back-and-forth, but taken on its own terms, makes for a fun time. Enjoy.

Writers Round Table: Alan Jacobs, ND Wilson, and Doug Wilson from Canon Wired on Vimeo.