Ahoy! I wanted to make a YouTube video for International Talk like a Pirate Day that featured pirates in church history. It turns out I don’t know very much about the subject, and what little time I had for research didn’t really help me find anything new besides the story of St Symeon of Syracuse (who features in the video).
I hope you enjoy the video. And I hope maybe someone can point me to the question of pirates and religion, as well as stories of pirati conversi or something? Pirates who repent would make for good stories to tell.
Oh — although I don’t know too much about this intersection of two interests of mine (pirates and church history), I do know some pirate songs, and they feature in the video. Enjoy!
I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.
She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:
Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.
This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.
Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.
There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.
This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.
Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.
Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.
But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?
This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.
For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.
Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.
By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.
Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.
The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.
The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.
These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.
Every once in a while, the Internet casts up on its shores some poor soul who used to be an evangelical but now has rejected Christianity altogether or who has become a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Or even heretic. And often, CCM is part of the story. At some point, this person woke up and realised that life wasn’t all happy and cheery, that it was complicated, and that the opponents of belief, whether atheists and agnostics or Christians opposed one’s own particular belief, aren’t idiots, but are actually quite articulate. And many of them are really nice.
But Christian rock seems to tell us a different story at times.
At least, it feels that way.
That the story told in a lot of CCM is one of unending triumph. Of mountaintop to mountaintop. And some people seem to think this is about as deep as Christianity goes. That Christianity is a religion about moralism, about resisting temptation, or simply about saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’, and that Christianity is about telling other people what to do and confronting them about it.
Life, of course, is messier than this. And, while I think a lot of CCM is written to actually help people through hard times, a lot of people find songs like the popular worship song, ‘I’m trading my sorrows,’ to be unhelpful and even harmful, neglecting the rock-bottom truth that we are all fundamentally broken.
I, personally, didn’t become disillusioned with Christianity when I started to become disillusioned with Christian rock. My personal disillusionment was a twofold cynicism, no doubt with a certain amount of personal pride. As an undergrad, I was actually exposed to a lot more contemporary mainstream music than as a teenager. And a lot of Christan music didn’t add up. On top of that, I felt what I’ve expressed above — that very little was engaging me at a deeper level.
I want either to be entertained — so VeggieTales’ ‘The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything’ poses no problems for me — or challenged/engaged a deep level. There is a lot in the evangelical subculture that leaves me unsatisfied on both counts, from Left Behind novels to most Christian films.
This disillusionment really began when I bought a Third Day album and didn’t like it. At all. I don’t know why it took so long for the disillusionment to set in — I’d bought a few disappointing albums as a teenager. But no, it was this particular encounter with Third Day.
Instead of questioning my own faith or Christianity, rather than rejecting the Christian religion as an easy-answer faith for people who don’t really know what they’re doing, two things happened. One, I started to become a bit proud. I — I told myself — was more sophisticated than a lot of other Christians. I didn’t enjoy Left Behind (although I read the first). I read Godric by Frederick Buechner. I read Aeschylus and Homer. I read St John of the Cross. I didn’t listen to Five Iron Frenzy (I don’t even know if they’re any good, that’s how little I listened to them). I listened to opera and symphonies. I prayed the Prayer Book. Well done me. I was a deep Christian. Sophisticated.
On the flip side, because of this alleged ‘sophistication’ (I think John Cassian calls it ‘vainglory’), when I became disillusioned with the Christian culture I met around me, it was not Christ with whom I became disillusioned. It was not Christianity I found wanting. Christ and the faith founded in His Name are more than rock’n’roll, more than cheap novels, more than poorly-acted films, more than shallow platitudes. I already knew that.
And I knew where to look. I had my Prayer Book. I had heard of devotional masters like St John of the Cross. I really got into St Francis at this time as well. My faith was multifaceted, by the grace of God. Disillusionment with one expression of Christianity did not mean either a rejection of the faith on the one hand or a need to move beyond orthodoxy on the other. With companions like C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi — as well as a few living folks like my immediately family and friends, and John Michael Talbot — I was prepared to stay with Christ.
Perhaps this is what makes my siblings and me different?
People often ask how it is that the four of us are all active, professing Christians who attend church regularly and even identify as Anglican, dwelling within the bounds of 39-Articles orthodoxy, to boot. Perhaps it’s because our exposure to the Great Tradition kept us safe. Our household was, indeed, steeped in Christian music when we were youths — but we did have a share of classic rock and classical music. But we were given opportunities to lead in worship, ministry, mission. We were given Prayer Books. We were exposed to church history in all its glorious and gorey variety. Our household was equally friendly to Baptists and to Catholics.
By the time any of us was old enough to become disillusioned with Christian pop culture, we had already lived through a certain amount of pain, anyway. And we had met Christians of a wide variety of traditions. We had sung traditional music in choirs. We had prayed Compline in the dark hours of the night. We had raised our hands to Graham Kendrick songs (or not — we’d certainly sung them). We had had long conversations with our parents about life, about orthodoxy, about Anglicanism, about the central truths of the faith. Learning that people thought our music was bad would have little effect on a faith filled with such variety and open to the Great Tradition.
Perhaps that’s the problem with filling our youth with fluff to keep them coming back to youth group and church?
When their faith is tested, where can they turn for something heavy enough to ground them?
I belong to a group on Facebook called, ‘It’s True, Young People Do Like Traditional Liturgy.’ It draws a lot of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans/Episcopalians, as well as the odd Lutheran or even Presbyterian. Today, someone posted this sublimely beautiful video of Russian chant in four-part harmony:
I’ve heard a lot of Russian chant, and am kind of in love with basso profundo, but there is something sweet and, as I say, sublimely beautiful about the music in the above recording. As I continued my Internet wanderings — which consisted of typing up a post for 11 months from now (Guerric of Igny on Candlemas — I’m sure you can’t wait!), I played a recording called ‘Medieval Russian Chant.’
Shortly, my eldest brother was inquiring over Facebook as to whether his younger siblings were acquainted with Steve Taylor’s latest album (actually, Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil), Goliath. I admitted to never having heard of it, let alone having heard it. So I pressed Pause on my Russian chant and trotted over to YouTube to meet Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil — seeing that two of his bandmates are Peter Furler of Newsboys fame and Jimmy A (for Abegg). Here’s “Moonshot”, where Taylor’s mouth freaks me out somethin’ fierce:
I went on to listen to a bunch more of Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil via YouTube — this eventually transitioned into Steve Taylor music videos from Squint, his 1993 album. As Michael said on Facebook, this sounds a lot like Squint but rocks harder and faster. I also agree that this is ‘prime Taylor.’ I, myself, once owned two Steve Taylor tapes, Squint and Liver (as in, more live, not the organ/food; it’s a live album); Michael has owned a lot of Taylor tapes, as well as the Squint video (as in, VHS).
I enjoy this music.
I have not been part of the whole Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) thing for many years. At some point in undergrad, my music purchases narrowed to classical and folk plus a bit of classic rock. Occasionally something happens to break these boundaries, like me buying three Coldplay albums that one time. Or I catch wind of something Christian that I approve of, like Steve Bell’sDevotion or John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bown Down. But on the whole, when I buy music, it tends to be classical or folk. CCM mostly appears through nostalgia — playing my own Guardian, dc Talk, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline albums — or a flurry of activity on Spotify. Not actual purchases.*
Frankly, I stopped enjoying a lot of the music. I found much CCM musically, theologically, lyrically, devotionally unsatisfying. Nonetheless, I still like some of it.
As I sit here, listening once again to some Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil (right now, “Standing in Line“), I want to share some honest thoughts about Christian rock, of varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. Since I am the sort of person who belongs to a Facebook group about traditional liturgy, who listens to Renaissance music, swoons at the sound of Russian chant, and would rather hear Vittoria’s music for the Passion on Palm Sunday than witness a poor dramatisation — someone who writes this blog, after all — it should come as no shock that I am not sold on rock music at Sunday worship.
But since I don’t feel like getting dragged into the Worship Wars, I will say only this — whatever music you prayerfully and meditatively choose for Sunday mornings, it must be doctrinally and biblically shaped, and I hope it upholds why we go to church in the first place:
to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. (BCP, preface to Morning Prayer)
And, if Eucharist is being celebrated, to encounter the living, ascended Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Most Holy Body and Blood. Oh — and, traditionally, Anglicans go to confess their sins. These are the objective purposes for which Sunday morning gatherings should transpire.
Rock music exists largely to be consumed through recordings, although there is something excellent about a live performance. But it was born in the recording age, and it was radio that made Elvis so big. This means that even if we go to a traditional worship service on Sunday, we still have access to recorded music and music videos in the comfort of our own homes and our cars.
I think there’s room for some Christian rock in our homes. I mean, this blog doesn’t exist to promote what little I know on the subject. Frankly, I’d just go around promoting Steve Taylor, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and PFR alongside less rockin’ CCM like Rich Mullins, John Michael Talbot, Steve Bell. Maybe Third Day sometimes. Petra’s album Wake Up Call. Stryper all night long. That sort of eclecticism that reflects my teenage years. And no, Stryper was not around when I was a teenager. I’m not that old.
But I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past years with the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox. And I’ve been reading the likes of St John Climacus, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St John Cassian, St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Augustine of Hippo, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ephrem the Syrian, Lancelot Andrewes, and others in my devotional readings. Since stopping the buying of CCM, I’ve discovered Tallis, Striggio, Bach’s choral works, and more. I have spent a bit of time with the works of Anthony de Mello. I have prayed the Jesus Prayer with a chomboschini.
There can be devotional importance in Christian rock. Some of it is good music, and beauty, whether the Sistine Chapel or the Beatles, is always a glimpse of the Divine. Some of is good poetry — likewise. Some of it is theologically profound. Some of it expresses truths we all need to face about life as a Christian in this world, which is probably where it’s greatest devotional importance lies, as in Steve Taylor, “Jesus Is for Losers”:
But we need the silence. Our lives are cluttered. Facebook, TV, radio, movies, Instagram, phones at our hips, ads on every available surface, etc, etc. Music is in the background everywhere — as we clean, as we walk down the street, as we fly across the ocean, as we make love, as we eat at a restaurant, as we ride an elevator — whether chosen by ourselves or others. Christian rock is part of the noise (but so, I am aware, can be Haydn’s Die Schoepfung).
Once upon a time, I went on a bus trip to the Troodos Mountains with my friends Fr Ioannis and Fr Andreas. Fr Ioannis is an iconographer. We visited the famous “painted churches of Cyprus” — and I loved it. I learned a lot about Orthodoxy and Cyprus and iconography and all manner of things. I beheld such beauty in these churches. I should tell you more about this trip sometime.
As we travelled along, one of the Orthodox faithful asked Fr Ioannis what he thought about Christian rock. Fr Ioannis gave an answer that has always stuck with me ever since. When you listen to rock music, can you pray? Fr Ioannis feels that this kind of music is not conducive to setting your heart in quiet as prayer needs.
And we are called to pray without ceasing by St Paul.
My sister has a friend who plays drums in a band, and she says that you can tell that his drumming is something of an ecstatic experience of worship for him. So, yes, one can worship and pray to rock music.
But we need to remember Elijah, as echoed in the Brian Doerksen song, who heard the still, small voice.
As I’ve blogged before, I sometimes have anger issues. It has not been Stryper or Petra or Steve Taylor who has calmed my spirit. Today I am less prone to anger than I was two years ago, and this is because the Lord’s grace has touched me whilst praying the Jesus Prayer.
In the secret, in the quiet place. In the stillness, He is there.
Sometimes, we need to turn the music off, not up. And we need to sit in the stillness and the silence. And pray.
I’m willing to allow a place for Christian rock. I can do without it, though. None of us can do without silence, stillness, and solitude, for it is there that God has made Himself known to many a believer since at least the day Moses ascended Sinai.
*As a side note, you should buy albums (digital, CD, vinyl, whatev) of artists yo u like because they make almost no money off Spotify. In fact, they make not so much from iTunes, either, so CD or vinyl is probably to be preferred.
Spem in alium nunquam habui præter in te, Deus Israel:
qui irasceris et propitius eris,
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis.
Domine Deus, Creator cæli et terræ,
respice humilitatem nostram.
In English (my Englishing):
I have never placed my hope in another but you, God of Israel,
you who although you are angered even will be gracious,
and will put away all the sins of men in suffering.
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth,
Look upon our lowliness.
From the Sarum use of the Roman Rite, based upon Judith 8:19 and 6:19.
Yesterday morning, I decided to watch the first episode of the Channel 4 programme Black Mirror at the recommendation of a friend. There is a synopsis here on IMDB. I felt kind of dead inside afterwards. This is, of course, part of the point of TV shows like Black Mirror — to hold up a mirror of the darkness of the insane, twisted world we live in. And I understand that. And maybe — maybe — we even need that sometimes. When we become too complacent with living with the darkness and forgetting to kick at it until it bleeds daylight. When we accept brokenness as ‘normal’ and the depraved and misguided as acceptable.
Yesterday just after lunch I went out, and I turned my phone’s radio to BBC Radio 3, where they were broadcasting live the lunchtime Proms. It was Thomas Tallis. When Tallis died, William Byrd said, ‘Tallis has died, and music has died with him.’ I’ve expressed my delight in Renaissance music here before, specifically in relation to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts. Well, I found myself quickly and easily caught up in Tallis’s music. I hope that this is what the heavenly choirs sing, because there is little music in this world more beautiful. It made my heart sing. I was happy and transported to another realm. Seriously. If I were alive in the 1500s, I would have a very hard time swallowing Heinrich Bullinger’s distaste for Renaissance music. I’m not sure I could ever be Reformed in that sense.
As I listened to Tallis, I thought about Black Mirror. In the episode I watched, the Prime Minister was forced into a horrible situation that involved committing a lewd act on television. One of the fictional commentators on the show said that this was the first truly great piece of art of the 21st century. Obviously fictional, but this is the sort of dark, shocking thing ‘real’ art seems to want these days.
Tallis, on the other hand. Well, Tallis is obviously after something else. Something bigger and better. The sixteenth century is not all glorious light and beauty. It’s not all the chapel at Hampton Court Palace or the art in Venice’s Accademia. It’s not all St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not all Cranmer’s Prayer Book or Shakespeare’s plays. It is also disease and death and filth and squalor and war and uncertainty and treason and changing political regimes and changing religious regimes and all the usual dirt and muck and sorrow and darkness of the world.
Tallis does not stoop down into the muck, pick up a handful of it, and compose music of dissonance and cacophony that reflects that. He does not put the sh*t of England on display (and yes, it must be that crude word to gain full force) and call it ‘art’. Instead, he raises his eyes to the heavens, to the rolling spheres. He looks to the beauty of God’s creation and man’s artistry. And he makes something that is fitting to the majesty of the Creator God — something that can raise us up beyond the muck and mire.
The world is an uncertain place today, just as it was in the days of Tallis. But I prefer Tallis’ approach, the approach of redemptive beauty. He puts the texts of Scripture and the liturgy to stunning, inescapably beautiful music. With Tallis, I am able to rise above the dirty filth of the Internet age. With Tallis, I can encounter the sublime. This is a great and terrible good. It is not escape, but rather refuge and solace.
The music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Donne, the sermons of Andrewes — these are moments of glistening beauty that strike us at our hearts, shot straight from the bow of the Renaissance. And they are moments that are there to help us survive the disease and uncertainty and sorrow and pain and woe and terror that beset us every day, whether in the news or on the internet or down the street or across the stairway or in our own homes.
I have been getting into Renaissance music recently. While I have enjoyed Palestrina in the past, I didn’t really listen to much Renaissance music until my friend Frank made me aware of I Fagiolini & Robert Hollingworth’s recording of Alessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts, then Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno. Out of curiosity, having viewed the YouTube video that discusses the recording, I listened to it on Spotify enough times to make it worth purchasing.*
When I first heard the Mass in 40 Parts, I almost cried, it was so beautiful. This mass is a very fine example of Renaissance polyphony — polyphony is what the word appears to mean, many sounds. Like its Baroque successors, this music tend to utilise counterpoint rather than harmony — Renaissance harmony (I think) tends to be chord-based, unlike what we experience in Beethoven or Wagner.
Counterpoint is the overlaying of multiple melodies, each doing something different. A fugue is a popular manifestation of Baroque counterpoint.** Usually, as in a fugue, music is written in four parts (like what I had to write when I took Harmony with the Royal Conservatory). What makes this particular piece of Renaissance Polyphony mindblowing is not just the expected beauty of it all but —
That means, at the height of the majesty of Striggio’s Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno there are forty parts at once. Not simply forty musicians or singers or anything like that. 40 different parts, multiple melodies laid over strong, chordal harmonies at the base. Forty. Parts. Hence polyphony.
Alessandro Striggio (b. 1536/7) was a court musician of the Medici family of Florence. It recorded that in April 1561, a ‘song for 40 voices’ of his composition was performed for two papal envoys on their way to restart the Council of Trent (the ‘counter-reformation’ council; council of the Catholic Reformation?). The liner notes of this CD reckon that the 40-part song was the magnificent first track of the album ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ a glory of Renaissance majesty. This song is performed again in 1568, it seems.
In 1567, we first hear of Striggio having produced a Mass in 40 parts. This Mass is partly derived from the 40-part ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ partly innovative — it is ‘polychoral’; the forty parts are divided between five choirs each singing eight parts. A clever strategy to achieve the wonder that this piece of music is.
Words cannot properly describe music. The Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio as recorded by I Fagiolini with Robert Hollingworth is … mindblowing, majestic, triumphal, heavenly, beautiful. It brings about those moments when your soul itself feels literally ‘uplifted’, those moments when you are drawn entirely into the moment itself — a moment of beauty, of peace, of wonder.
The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion — the liturgical event for which this Counter-Reformation Renaissance polyphony was composed — is an act of worship to the holy, Triune God, who is worshipped by the angels with their thrice-holy cry. In the Eucharist, we enter the throne room of God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, the unmoved mover, uncreated creator, whose throne is the heavenlies and footstool is earth.
Should it not be a time to catch your breath? A time to be filled with wonder? A time to weep? A time to be filled with joy? A time for wondrous beauty?
I look forward to I Fagiolini’s 1612 Italian Vespers on 4 June.
*Spotify users: The artists themselves generate very little revenue from Spotify. If you enjoy little-known bands or classical music, purchase your favourites to give them royalties. More money for artists = more art = a better world.
**Like this one, by Bach. 2:40 gives you a good visual representation of a fugue. If logic doesn’t convince people there is a God, Bach might be able to ….
Allow me to demonstrate my uncoolness not only by referencing a Christian rock song, but by referencing one that’s from 1997. First, if you don’t know the Audio Adrenaline (who have appeared on this blog before) song ‘Some Kind of Zombie,’ you should rectify that now:
Alternatively, you can listen to the song and its accompanying album on Spotify.
Outside of actually being a pretty good song (one sighs that Audio Adrenaline isn’t producing any more music, given how terrible so much Christian pop/rock is), I’m thinking of it particularly because of these lines:
Here they come.
They’re all upon me.
But I’m dead to sin like
some kind of zombie.
I hear you speak and I obey.
I walked away from the grave.
I will never be afraid.
I gave my life away.
I’m obliged and obey.
I’m enslaved to what you say.
This song gives us a fairly radical vision of what it means to be a follower of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are slaves of God who are obliged to obey Him and are dead to sin. It’s not actually a very popular image these days. We prefer being the friends of God, the buddies of God, the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ — sometimes even the Bride of Christ.
But his slaves? No thanks.
However, this image of being a slave of Christ is not an invention of Audio Adrenaline’s:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Ro 6:15-18)
St. John Chrysostom (Goldenmouth) says of Romans 6:18:
There are two gifts of God which he here points out. The “freeing from sin,” and also the “making them servants to righteousness,” which is better than any freedom. For God hath done the same as if a person were to take an orphan, who had been carried away by savages into their own country, and were not only to free him from captivity, but were to set a kind father over him, and bring him to very great dignity. And this has been done in our case. For it was not our old evils alone that He freed us from, since He even led us to the life of angels, and paved the way for us to the best conversation, handing us over to the safe keeping of righteousness, and killing our former evils, and deadening the old man, and leading us to an immortal life. (Homilies on Romans XI)
The point is that we are made more than sin-free — we are made holy by the action of Christ. Righteousness isn’t simply not doing wrong; it has the positive content of living life as it was meant to be lived, life as God teaches us through Scripture and the lives of the saints. The salvation he offers to us gives us the power to live this righteous life.
Being the slave of God, of Christ, of righteousness is, thus, a good thing. We are dead to sin, which brings death to us, and alive to Christ, who brings life to us. This is part of the ontological change St. Maximus talks about (as discussed here). Let’s try, then, to live holy lives.
The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:
Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)
The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.
Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)
Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno” — the Mass in 40 Parts.
I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.
“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’
God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!
Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.
Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).
How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:
St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.
In my post against the Prosperity Gospel (and in favour of St. Clement of Alexandria), I made it clear that neither Scripture nor the Great Tradition affirms the idea that Jesus Christ saves people from poverty, illness, small houses, small cars, bad jobs, mean people, etc, and that all we need for such “victory living” is faith.
However, Christianity does affirm that Jesus saves. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just the sort of thing dc Talk sings about involving “a man with a tat on his big, fat belly,” or an invention of revivalistic evangelicalism in the Welseyan era.
According to Scripture, Jesus saves; here are a few quotations (all NIV):
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Mt 10:22)
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mk 8:35)
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (Jn 10:9)
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
But from what are we saved? Many people have given answers to this, and I believe that many of them catch different aspects of the same reality of Christ’s saving work in the life of those who put their trust in him.
Traditionally, the sacrament of baptism has been the moment of entry into Christ’s church; let us not forget St. Peter in Acts telling people to “repent and be baptised” as the way of salvation. We shall be highly Anglican at this point, and turn to liturgy to consider salvation.
We start with the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Anglicans practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents make the baptismal vows in the child’s place:
Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you? Answer.They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.
Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee? Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.
Later in the Catechism we read that baptism is “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.”
From these two moments in the Catechism, we learn that salvation, as symbolised/enacted/recapitulated in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is a renunciation of the devil and all his works, the empty things of the world, and of sin — indeed, it is “a death unto sin.”
Having died to sin and made this renunciation, the baptised Christian is in the “state of salvation” already.
This point is an important one, for many would tell us that salvation is merely a “Get out of Hell Free” card, a ticket to Heaven when we die. According to the Anglican tradition, such is not the case. Rather, salvation is a state in which we dwell here on earth. We are saved in this earthly existence from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The world, in this instance, is not the entire universe or the globe of the earth but, rather, those aspects of the world around us that are evil or tend towards evil. Such is the traditional Christian understanding of “the world” in moments as this (see the ever-popular Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way on this).
The flesh is not your body. It that inner part of you that tends towards evil. As quoted before, Sergei Bulgakov (quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way) says, “Kill the flesh, in order to acquire a body.”
The devil is not a red guy with goat legs and a pitch-fork. He is also, however, not simply the psychological world of the subconscious that swirls around tempting us in various ways — that would be the flesh. As Robertson Davies says in Happy Alchemy, “People don’t believe in the devil nowadays; that is one of the devil’s favourite jokes.”
The devil is a personal force of evil with minions, just as angels are personal forces of good. The power of the devil is primarily in his ability to tempt us towards evil. His temptations are those that don’t seem to come exclusively from within ourselves nor really from the world around us. They are diabolical; but our flesh is always the deciding factor when we sin. As agents with freewill, we choose sin all by ourselves. The devil just helps us along.
According to Pope St. Leo the Great, the devil has had another role in human history. After the Fall, according to Leo, the devil received the souls of the dead humans and took them to Hades. This was his … em … job. We read:
the Son of God took on Him the nature of mankind in order to reconcile it to its Maker, that the devil, the inventor of death, might be conquered through that very nature which had been conquered by him. (Sermon 21.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)
For if Godhead by itself were to stand forth in behalf of sinners, the devil would be overcome rather by power than with reason. And again, if the mortal nature by itself were to undertake the cause of the fallen, it would not be released from its condition, because it would be free from its stock. Therefore it was necessary that both the Divine and human substances should meet in our Lord Jesus Christ, that our mortal nature might, through the Word made flesh, receive aid alike from the birth and passion of a new Man. (Sermon 56.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)
Leo is a master rhetorician who uses evocative language and series of balances and antitheses to make his points about who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us. In these two passages, Leo speaks of Jesus’ action towards the devil (something not lacking in other of his sermons or the Tome). The devil has been beaten by Jesus; he has been beaten through Our Lord’s incarnation and passion. Jesus’ death on the Cross destroyed the power of the devil.
Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, died as a criminal. Having lived a sinless life, his soul was not the property of the devil. As God, death was not part of his nature. Thus, the Crucified God “trampled down death with death.”* He defeated the devil and served as a ransom for our souls — none of us, as a result, need have his’er soul taken by the devil.
This brings us to what else Jesus saves us from — death. This part of salvation is the bit that most people tend to think of when they hear, “Jesus saves.” We have been trained to think thus, “Ask Jesus into your heart, say sorry for the bad things you have done, and you will not go to Hell when you die.” Sometimes, the Hell bit is skirted and we are told, “And you will live forever with Him in heaven.”
This salvation from death is present from the days of the Apostles, of course — “Death, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55) — and is not to be played down, as the BCP ensures it is not, as in Publick Baptism of Infants:
Almighty and everlasting God … We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Nonetheless, our salvation, even here where an important part of the prayer is that the child may have “everlasting life” — ie. not die — a great concern is present for this life being lived with Christ.
To take all these swirling bits of things, Scriptural, liturgical, patristic, we see that Jesus does not save us from poverty or illness. Not as a general rule, anyway. He saves us from death — this is both the current notion of Heaven vs. Hell and the older, traditional notion of “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (see my trans of the Apostle’s Creed).
He saves us from the world, the flesh, the devil.
By his grace (favour), he gives us the strength we need to resist temptations and fight evil (we fight evil by waging peace). When Jesus saves us, we have the ability to do good things. We are released from the stranglehold sin has over us. As time goes on, sin should become more and more infrequent as we rely on his grace and his power. (This is why my wrangling with Pelagians counts, by the way.) Part of salvation is trusting in Him for this strength rather than ourselves.
These 1776 words leave us with another question, and that one is important: How are we saved? Someday I’ll tell you. 😉
If I’m not making sense, tell me and I’ll be more coherent.
*Paschal Troparion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.