Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4
Advertisements

Lent II – Do Not Forget the Giver

Wedding at Cana by Louis Kahan

~ Wedding Feast at Cana, Louis Kahan

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God…

17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

~ Deuteronomy 8:11-20

I have heard the phrase in v. 18, “It is [the Lord] who gives you power to get wealth,” used several times in justification of the pursuit of wealth, which may then enable work for the Lord. While that is not necessarily a poor conclusion to draw, it seems tangential to the larger point of this passage: our wealth–or our talents, abilities, possessions of various kinds, opportunities, etc.–are a gratuitous gift from God. They are unmerited and not guaranteed; and if they become ends in themselves, matters of pride, or idols, they will lead to spiritual deadness, not the resurrection life of abundance, fruitfulness, and joy.

I believe that the pursuit of cultural good, cultural renewal, is a calling for all Christians, part of the redemptive work set in motion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this passage is a stark reminder that all such pursuits–be they business ventures or artistic ones–must not displace the one they ought to glorify. As at the Wedding Feast at Cana, where the miraculous best wine put Jesus’s glory on display publicly for the first time and became a metaphor for Jesus himself, our redemptive endeavors should point to the glory of the One who is redeeming the whole world; our remaking and reshaping work in the culture a metaphor for God’s remaking of all things.

What is a Christian intellectual?

An intellectual isn’t an intellectual because he is secular or religious, but instead because he has something intelligent to say that makes a difference in how we think and act.

from “The Christian Intellectual“, at First Things

Apologies for the long hiatus… it will most likely continue until next summer (since marriage and comprehensive exams are coming between now and then). But in the meantime, this article captures much of what I think about my own place in God’s kingdom as a Christian intellectual. It’s not just – or even primarily – about evangelism. It is about being salt and light. It is about embracing and discovering truth. It is about being a little Christ… that is, being conformed to his image in the very work that I do. It is about building up those around me in their intellectual as well as their spiritual lives. It is about clinging to the vision of Christ working in all of creation to bring redemption.

Selections from my bookshelf

(re-)Read in 2012

  • Photo credit: SPCK Publishing

    be not afraid (Samuel Wells) – A slim but encouraging volume on the nature of fear, whether it is all bad, what kinds of things we are afraid of, and why and how our hope in Christ should influence the way we handle fear. I found this volume particularly helpful in my own struggles with anxiety this past year.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis) – A re-read item, but I don’t actually remember the exact time I last read these lovely books. As an adult, I found returning to these fanciful stories with a greater understanding of Scripture, literature, and the other writings of C.S. Lewis to be both delightful and stimulating. The Last Battle is especially puzzling yet illuminates some of the glorious ideas Lewis had about eschatology and the community of believers.
  • Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – I am a long time fan of 19th and early 20th century British literature, especially of novels written by female authors (e.g. Jane Austen; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte). Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively recent discovery of mine through her books (and their recent film adaptations) Wives and Daughters and North and South. Cranford is less a single narrative than a collection of intertwining stories of the residents of the sleepy town of Cranford. The narrator – Mary Smith – records events with a partial eye, but her participation in the story is the window into the light and yet serious matters of the unimportant characters in the story.
  • An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – The finale to the Time series engages in questions about the nature of time, how we interact with past and present and future, how God’s presence might have been known (if at all) among those who had no opportunity to hear of him. If you’ve never read the children’s series (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time), I’d highly recommend it to any adult reader. Some of L’Engle’s ideas about time and the universe are fanciful, but her imagination brings a breadth and depth to our engagement with things we don’t understand about the cosmos. Perhaps creation is singing, and has been sung into existence, and we just can’t hear it unless we listen.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (David Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, narrator) – Another
    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    children’s series… I read many “easy” books this year due to my need for rest from my studies, but this series, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and An Acceptable Time, is very interesting to read as an adult. Based on the premise that the three Baudelaire siblings face many unfortunate events, most of which are perpetuated by the villain, Count Olaf, the series follows the siblings as they face questions about the nature of good and evil, the difficulty of making a decision when all the options are poor, and the potentially deceptive nature of language. The tone is actually comedic – somewhat darkly so – but the undercurrent of hope in familial bonds, trust in each other, and forgiveness draws these books together in an unexpectedly redemptive narrative.

  • Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) – Another re-read item, this book is one of the most charming, well written, and compelling defenses of faith I have ever read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in how one might find belief in Christ and God a foundation and a rock in the swirling turbulence of ideologies and uncertainty in our day. Another great book in a similar vein is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Current/To-read queue

  • Theology, Music, and Time (Jeremy Begbie) – I’ve tried to read this book a few times, but in the middle of the dense readings of my degree program, I had not found the energy or concentration I needed to delve into the meaty prose of this work. Now that I have the opportunity, I’m intrigued by the coincidence between many of the issues Begbie deals with and the broader issues I encountered in Contemporary Aesthetics (Spring 2012). Begbie critiques and expands on Zuckerkandl in an effort to explore the dimensions of time in music and how these might affect our understanding and experience of time through a theological lens.
  • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) – The Jane Austen novels are dear friends; I return to them on a regular basis, especially to Pride and Prejudice, which I read every year. Northanger Abbey is the closest in tone to Austen’s juvenilia, even though it was published posthumously. I re-read it less often than most of the other novels, so I found returning to it this time to be a very fresh take on the story. Austen’s satire and wit is closer to the surface in this novel, which makes it both a pleasant read and a window into the ideas that informed her writing style in her later novels.
  • Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Abraham Kuyper) – I’ve heard so much about Kuyper in my readings and discussions about the way our theology should impact our engagement with culture. This translation of a partial volume of Kuyper’s is exciting and approachable – I’m looking forward to exploring it further.
  • Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Timothy Keller) – One of my favorite reviewers says this about Every Good Endeavor:

it … remind[s] us that we join our work to God’s work because of God’s gracious overtures and the gospel’s effective power in our lives… From the good plan of God to the hard news of sin to the exciting news of a Kingdom approach, these three units offer a great structure for a great book, and Keller plumbs this well.  It isn’t a cheap structure or a casual one, it is profound. His astute teaching about all this helps us see that.  Like other things in life — from sex to art, science to politics — we can see what is good and wondrous, what is sinful and broken, and what is being redeemed by gospel transformation, and how to take up our vocations into the world in wise and proper ways.  This is the story of the God’s redemptive work in the world and is how we take up the calling, as in his subtitle, to relate our daily work to God’s work. ~ Byron Borger, Hearts and Minds Books

  • Photo credit: Tyndale

    The Just Church: Becoming a risk-taking, justice-seeking, disciple-making congregation (Jim Martin) – If I’m honest with myself, I’ve let much of the conversation on social justice in the church pass by me. This book just came out last year and appears to be grounded in the gospel and practical. Again, I quote Byron Borger: “this incredibly useful book does just what its subtitle promises — it helps integrate justice advocacy into ordinary discipleship, and helps ordinary churches realize they must be proactive in building wholistic disciples.  Dare our churches not take risks for the cause of justice, dare we sit on the sidelines of the great historical battle for justice and liberation, dare we continue with church-life as usual?” 

  • Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Richard Mouw) – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since it came out, and I just haven’t gotten a hold of it yet. One of my biggest frustrations with public conversation (and private conversation sometimes) is the tone – we are so quick to condemn others, to be angry, to insist that we are right – we are so often uncivil and unwilling to hear others. This book calls us Christians to a totally different mindset.

Alongside this last book, I’ll just mention that this weekend is the Institute for Biblical Studies in Ithaca, NY, and Richard Mouw is the speaker this year. If you are nearby, I’d encourage you to attend.

For other book ideas this year, see my friend Bethany’s recent post: The year in books: 2012

Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Written by my friend Karl Johnson, this article addresses our need for a doctrine of vocation – why does our work matter before God?

Today, we need the doctrine of vocation as much as ever but for mostly different reasons. Whereas Luther argued that “vocation” ought to include labor, today’s secularized version of the work ethic reduces vocation to nothing but labor. Instead of holding too low a view of work, many students suffer from careerism, associating work not so much with service as with self-fulfillment.

Thinking of our calling as a response to God’s calling also expands the notion of calling to include all of life. “The word vocation is a rich one,” writes our recent guest Steven Garber, “having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.” Or as Os Guinness puts it in The Call, “everyone, everywhere, and in everything lives the whole of life in response to God’s call.”

RE: Remembering the Mystical

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, and as I reread it, I am both encouraged to see that these ideas have continued to influence my scholarship, specifically in my own research area, and bothered by my own failure to remember in my daily life. Remembering is difficult but terribly important. That God formed the nature of music is part of the picture, but that God formed me and the whole context of my life must necessarily shape the priority I place on the study of music. However significant this art and the study of it may be, even more so is the living out of my WHOLE life, body & soul, for God’s glory.

Pictures on Silence

How do I practice music in such a way that I am treating the created world “as able to glorify God in its own way, by virtue of its own distinctive patterns, rhythms, and movements?” (Begbie, RT, 92)  This as opposed to viewing music as merely a pointer beyond itself to a Platonic ideal harmony, as dangerously earthy, emotional, nonverbal, as necessarily contained in its proper place by the clarity and purity of words and ideas.

As a theorist, I must necessarily treat music as a less-than-scientific whole.  The analytical-logical side of me longs to understand music as a science, to articulate how it works in an orderly, organized fashion, to hypothesize and experiment, to explain away its ineffableness.  And to a great extent, delving into the organized patterns that compose effective music is aesthetically and spiritually rewarding, leading to a grand appreciation of the existence of such…

View original post 280 more words

Integrated Life as an Academic

Last night, I went to a talk given by Karl Johnson, founder of Chesterton House, which is a Christian study center at Cornell University.  In his talk, Karl briefly traced the historical transformation of the university, as follows:

from the 1630s – in which universities were places of spiritual and moral formation as well as of professional training, and in which human limitation acknowledged divine revelation as a source of knowledge

through the 19th and early 20th centuries – in which Enlightenment thought with its optimism and sense of progress shaped the modern research university, and the earlier acknowledgement of the limitations of human reason alone gave way to a sense that we could figure out all that we needed to know

to World War I through the late 20th/early 21st century – in which optimism concerning empiricism as the source of truth gave way to a pessimism that saw the inability for humanity to achieve truth and peace through reason, that rebelled against the division of head and heart, facts and values, and placed emphasis primarily on subjective truth (all of which is commonly referred to as postmodernism)

In this context, he discussed the increased secularization of the university, and the fact that religion and faith issues have been increasingly shunted aside as private, value-laden, unknowable, and undiscussed in the academy except in the context of religion centers (and increasingly, departments).  The university, especially in its larger forms, has also mostly relinquished any attempt at creating “good citizens,” as it has realized that an emphasis on rationality alone does little to shape the morals and ethics of individual students.  Such issues are dealt with in Student Affairs, not in class.  The “big questions” remain unasked – students chuckle at the absurdity of those “religious conservatives” as portrayed in the media, nod in agreement as a pharmacology professor explains that the beautiful intricacy of a cellular mechanism proves how absurd it is that an omniscient being could have had any hand in creating life…

In addition, Karl briefly discussed the anti-intellectualism that grew out of the fundamentalist reaction against Higher Criticism and the elevation of reason and empiricism, the effects of which are still noticeably evident among parts of the evangelical circle today.  Instead of engaging in dialogue with those who denounce faith, conservative Christians have often either been outraged or silent on the subject.  As a result, the interaction between the academy and the church is often impoverished.  So, what are we to do?

Karl mentioned the rise of campus ministry groups, such as InterVarsity, Navigators, Campus Crusade, etc., whose function is to provide connections for Christians on campus in the form of Bible Study, worship times, etc.  As good as these are in many respects, they indirectly perpetuate the academic claim that religion and faith are outside of the purview of other academic disciplines.  Karl encouraged us to pursue the integration of faith with academic study in other disciplines, which is the mission of Chesterton House.  The study center is a resource that provides a venue for questioning and debate, that brings in well-qualified speakers on topics that address metaphysical and other meaningful questions, that connects students across a wide variety of disciplines in their search for truth, that ultimately encourages students to avoid compartmentalizing faith in favor of integrating it with their studies.

As an academic and a Christian, this appeals.  I am always trying to understand how my basic beliefs about the world and about God shape and should shape my studies of music and philosophy.  I also have deep questions, some of which I have beginnings of answers for, others of which remain mysterious in many ways – and these questions are not often addressed in class or even in the social life around classes.  Of course, the church ought to be addressing such questions, but not fearfully – and it often does so.  But my academic life is not a different life from the one in which my questions about life and learning and music occur.

Notably, Karl did not advocate a return to the spiritual and moral basis of the academy.  There is a place – a significant place – for Christian schools (I went to one for undergrad!), but the academy being what is today, Christian study centers may be one way in which young Christian academics may be encouraged to not only pursue vocations in many disciplines, but to pursue them in a Christ-centered, intellectually honest way, such that our lives are holistically integrated, with faith in and service to God permeating every intellectual (and other) activity.