A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Two)

So Theomusicologist, you do realise that I have been waiting a considerable time for this conversation to continue, don’t you??

Yes indeed, and I’m so sorry! It has been an incredibly intense period with pretty much no letup. And you’re not the only one. But as we get into this, I thought I’d share a comment that came from a reader of Part One of this mini-series.

Really? OK, what did they have to say? Let me quote verbatim:

“hmm..interesting piece…Where is your scientific or whatever to refute berdahls “claim”? sorry but it seems all you have here is opinion rather than fact.”

I hate to use the word ‘interesting’ as they used it, but this is a very ‘interesting’ comment… I can only agree. The evidence suggests that they must have read the last exchange we had, but somehow I still find myself wanting to ask if they actually read it… What do you think? Hard to tell from this, I must say. I mean, the fact is that the very ‘claim’ itself…(and that’s a question, why on earth have they put ‘claim’ in inverted commas when the video is as clear as daylight? That IS what the man said!) is  as wild as it gets, and having thought about it a bit, I can see that Berdahl could have made a diatribe against syncopation without over-stating things as he does with that claim.

Yes, I would say you are definitely tracking on this one. I’ve not begun to unpick the issues regarding syncopation itself as yet – so our friend has shown us all exactly how to read and respond to something without a coherent grasp of what has been read. And so it is easy to now accuse me of having only offered opinions rather than fact. As it is, what I have done is very simple: I have drawn attention to a “fact” of history and the video is evidence (for those who accept). I have proceeded to ask a series of questions, and I have also made statements that are definitely more than mere ‘opinion’ – an example being my point that not everyone who speaks an ‘untruth’ has set out to lie. This is just the kind of unfocussed, empty question that I have come to expect from some people, and I am only drawing attention to this for the benefit of those who would actually like to grow their understanding of matters such as these but who are woefully short of “match practice” in the area of thinking for themselves more rigorously. If you want to be taken seriously in a serious conversation with actual technical content, learn how to ask serious questions!!

Okay, right, got you. This person obviously failed to get the fact that they needed to wait to see what case you were going to make in a future post rather than looking for all your answers in the last post. But don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh? Not everyone thinks as you do, Theomusicologist, and I just worry that people who just don’t think like you will just back away from what you say because…well, to be fair, you’re not what a lot of people expect and your firmness about stuff is hard for people to deal with. I find you hard work sometimes and I’m your friend!

I really appreciate that, and I guess this is why I am trying to communicate on this occasion using a conversational style. It is my professional – not personal – opinion that what Berdahl has said about syncopation is dangerously misleading, and this is why we are engaged in a public conversation about it. But look, I am more than ready to step up the technical conversation. Shall we?

Absolutely! I think it’s time you broke down syncopation in more detail!

Good stuff; so, let’s keep grounded in the context – Berdahl claimed that syncopation itself is the source of ALL occult power in pagan rituals. So my first question is: does the conceptual and practical entity that we call syncopation have what it takes to be the source of any kind of power in and of itself?

What??

Hmm…not entirely sure how to make this one simpler, but let me see…okay, let me put it this way. Just for a moment, freeze on the fact that syncopation is a word with a definition. I’m asking a question on a level of principle here. And the question is this: does “syncopation” have the scope or capacity to actually be a source of occult power in and of itself?

Okay, I am sort of following; I guess Berdahl is saying that it does. Or rather – he is making an assumption on the basis of whatever information he has acquired that syncopation not only has the capacity to be a source of occult power, but that it really actually IS the source of occult power…whoa!

Technical point: that would presuppose that he has actually ‘acquired some information’ – do we know this for a fact? Or has he made this statement on a basis of his own beliefs and opinions?

I’m starting to see where you might be going with all this, Theomusicologist. I’ve just thought of something. I am ALL ears, talk to me! Well, a PhD in systematic theology is not required to understand that Satan himself is the author of sin…sin comes from him, right? That’s what my Bible says – and I’m kind of starting to get a line of thought going in my head that the actual source of ‘occult power’ has be the occult itself, right? Semantically speaking, in this line of thought it can ONLY be the occult itself, my friend! Right! It can only be the occult itself – therefore, the actual source of occult power in pagan worship services is…Satan himself?? Hang on, that would mean that he is the one they are worshipping, but he is the one empowering them to worship him??? Whoa…Theomusicologist, you are a very dangerous person. I can’t always keep up with you, now you’ve started asking questions and my own mind has begun to run into directions faster than I can keep up…you academic theologians are mad, do you hear me?! Mad! My life was simple before I met you…

It’s been said before… But I would hasten to point out that you were responsible for that line of thought, not me! But as you are showing such commendable enthusiasm for the task of thinking through this issue, I think that perhaps we ought to shake things up a bit more. What you’re saying is that you enjoy seeing me even more confused than I am already! Go on, admit it! My good friend, while of course I know what you are getting at, we both know that we can only joke about this because we both respect each other and you know that nothing matters more to me than people having a correct understanding of issues such as this – because sometimes salvation can literally depend on it!

Yes, of course I know this. So shake away, I can take it! What are you about to drop on me? Well now – what do you think the word ‘occult’ actually means?

I already don’t like this question as I know you too well by now! But I will play the game. I’m assuming that it means to do with witchcraft, paganism and satanism. In the way I have tended to use it, I see it as one of the words that defines the kingdom of Satan. Are you about to tell me that this is not quite right? Because if so, I am seriously intrigued!

Loving the framework of that definition, my friend. I can also say that for most of my life I would have said the exact same thing. But I then learnt that the word ‘occult’ comes from the Latin word family starting from the word occultere which means ‘secrete’ – that’s a technical word, but the rest of the word family gives us “to hide,” “conceal” and “covered over.”

Okay…hmm. Wait – are you saying that the word ‘occult’ refers to secret stuff – supernatural stuff that we can’t ‘see’ physically – but that it is not actually always specific to Satanic stuff??

Well, that is unfortunately more complicated than some might find ideal. Why am I not surprised?! Such is life, but let me explain. Okay!

Generally, the modern English word “occult” pertains to: “mystical, supernatural, or magical powers, practices, or phenomena.” That’s a difficulty because theologically we know that good and evil are not equal. What do you mean? Just that! God is the very embodiment of “good.” If God is eternal, then good in any ultimate sense is also eternal. But who does bad come from (if you’re a Christian)?

Satan!

And is Satan eternal?

Er…no, I know he’s not, somehow, but I can’t say why… Let me help. Question: what was Satan? Well, he was Lucifer before he was Satan, and as Lucifer he was an angel, the chief angel in heaven. Of course! And did angels create themselves? No, God made them! Right, so they are not eternal, are they? No, and that means that Satan is not eternal…

Now this is theology, isn’t it? Lucifer had a beginning, and as Satan he will have an end. Sin has a beginning, and it will also have an end. So good and evil are therefore not equal.

You know, I kind of knew they weren’t – but at the same time, I didn’t know that. So how does this relate to the definition of ‘occult?’

Well, the linking of ‘mystical,’ ‘supernatural’ and ‘magical’ is complicated because ‘magic’ cannot apply to God, but ‘supernatural’ can and does, and even ‘mystical’ can and does. I know that some people will get bent out of shape on that issue because they honestly associate the word family around ‘mystical’ to heresies such as Gnosticism, but I can’t stop to fix that right now. My point is that for many people (maybe even most people), all of this ‘supernatural’ stuff is essentially in the same dimension of life.

Okay! So, this is what you call ‘an overgeneralisation to make a point’ isn’t it? Absolutely. Right. And yes, that makes sense to me, actually – because most people I know outside the Christian world have a much more vague conception of the real differences in beliefs across different religions, and even different worldviews. But even that’s not straightforward – because for some African Christians, belief in both God and what we Westerners would call ‘magic’ is not as far apart as would be ideal…

It really could not be less straightforward. Both inside and outside religious communities, confusion reigns. I jokingly refer to what I call the ‘divine magic wand’ when I want to make a serious point about some Christian people’s views regarding and expectations of God and what He is supposed to be doing. There is NO divine magic wand – the very concept is reprehensible on every level – but my point is that one of the great deceptions of the modern world (and the pluralistic notions that are now as common as litter on the streets) is this mish-mash of religious understanding. Result: for too many of us, the dividing line between good and evil is now seriously blurred. I have a confession to make, by the way!

Okay…

I used to watch shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer regularly when I was younger. I comforted myself with vague notions that all this stuff was not real, so it wasn’t hurting me. But eventually I realised – and I know it had to be the Holy Spirit – that to watch these programmes was effectively endorsing the values they espoused, even if I was only interested in being “entertained.” If the storylines were effectively “make-believe” based on lies, then how on earth was it coherent for a Bible-believing Christian to be watching this stuff?

I’m with you, Theomusicologist, and I have a few tales of my own in that regard. But look, we both have to go soon. You’ve spent all this time talking about the word ‘occult’ and our understanding of things to do with the occult. And I am STILL waiting to get to grips with the actual business of syncopation itself! So I need a signpost to where we’re going to go before we part company today, if that’s ok…

Of course, and I really appreciate your willingness to engage with me and my very strange mind. Here’s the signpost: It is not just the secular people whose notions of the occult are scrambled – it is also many Christians! We needed to talk through the fact that good and evil are not equal, didn’t we? You had access to all the information to know that fact, but you hadn’t put those pieces together. Uh-huh. So when anyone talks about “occult power” and “pagan worship services” it is imperative that we break down those phrases – because where I’m going is this: if Berdahl really knew anything about this stuff on any serious technical level, he would not have expressed himself so loosely. I’m not merely questioning his credibility in the area of a technical musical concept such as syncopation; I am questioning his actual understanding of words like ‘occult.’ He insisted that he had somehow come into contact with information from “all occult experts around the world” and on that basis his statement about syncopation ought to be taken seriously.

This is not about a simplistic, emotional response to a highly questionable statement. This is about asking how and why Christians don’t think more rigorously than they do, and encouraging everyone to think more deeply about the stuff that they hear preached and taught. Until next time, my friend: God bless you!

And you too, Theomusicologist!

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Praise is over-rated…

Last weekend, I led worship.

I fasted and prayed beforehand. And as I did that, I became aware of all the things in me which did not qualify me to lead anyone or anything in corporate worship to a holy God. Note to anyone who thinks that fasting is a tool to buy currency and favour with God – often when you fast, Satan shows up at the same time as the Almighty and starts causing problems. We have already dealt with fasting controversies elsewhere…

But I remembered being taught by a fantastic gentleman called Louis Torres something about how to pray before embarking on an act of ministry: if you pray beforehand, you’d best believe that God will hear and answer you!

Without being side-tracked by the lack of caveats and disclaimers, this was one time where belief was entirely necessary. With Satan hard at work prior to the service, this was either God’s time, or this praise team was a busted flush. And that was the backdrop to the pre-rehearsal prayer.

God showed up. And after the service, the levels of approbation were the highest I have ever experienced.

But this is the thing: I’ve led worship before in total sincerity, and not had that response. And I’ve directed praise teams and other Levitical groups who were as spiritually and musically prepared as they could be, and met opposition.

And at other times Levites have participated in worship, and played and sung quite terribly, and the love/positivity/support/etc from their hearers has been serious!

This has led to the ineluctable conclusion: the feedback of the congregation is not ever supposed to be the barometer by which one judges the success of a worship team enterprise.

Something is good because it is good – not because the church members say so.

Something is bad because it is bad – not because the church members say so.

So, let us not be defined by the words and thoughts of others, but look to increase our own skill and understanding as Levites so that we can set our own path and chart our own course to the heavy level – in Jesus’ Name!

And they sang a new song…

After a long time away from the blogosphere, during which much has changed in my life, I am returning to public writing with renewed vigour, praising God for His work in my life. And while I have no intentions of hamfisting my way through rose-coloured notions of ‘new beginnings,’ I do want to ‘pick up my pen’ with regards to the idea of ‘newness’ – and this Biblical notion of a ‘new song.’

Earlier this year I was given a challenge – to preach a sermon on the ‘song ideas’ of Revelation chapters 5, 15 and 19. I hung the sermon on a peg – the peg being an exploration of the notion of ‘doxology.’

This is one of my favourite words in the whole world, but one which I do not plan to unpack right now…

As ever, there are a lot of things we juggle in reading the Bible. John the author of Revelation is telling us about something the he saw happening in heaven. Chapter 5 is SUCH an important chapter for all those in worship ministries – and in verse 9 we are told that a ‘new’ song is sung unto the Lamb – for He alone is worthy.

Although I grew up with classical music and as a classical musician, it was my own choice to side-step to jazz and gospel music at the age of 19. However, earlier in my teens a certain ground-breaking gospel album had been released – this one:

I had always wanted to stage a performance of this entire album one day, as some of the musical thinking exhibited was quite fantastic and in some ways this album would prove to be ahead of its time. But this is where things get interesting: of the 53 ‘movements’ in Handel’s original, this album contains just 16 – and if you don’t know the album, guess what the final track is:

That’s right, the Hallelujah Chorus.

Forget contemporary gospel re-arrangements of sacred European baroque music – pretty much all of the Messiah lovers right across the cultural/racial spectrum that I have met think that this really should have been the final movement of this oratorio. Whatever you believe, this piece is massive. And for the producers and visionaries behind the Soulful Messiah, this was the only way they were going to close out that album.

But when you think that way, you miss something.

One of the most formative moments in my conducting studies came when we were studying and rehearsing this work in class. Our Grammy Award-winning teacher Simon Halsey explained to us how, as the years had passed, he had finally reached the conclusion that Part 3 of Messiah was the most important part of the whole thing. Here’s what you (may) need to fill in the blank: Messiah is in 3 parts (surprise, surprise) and the Hallelujah Chorus is no. 44 – the final movement of Part 2!

But it gets more interesting. On Soulful Messiah, no. 15 is I Know that My Redeemer Liveth – unquestionably one of the most famous arias of the work. And where is that Handel’s original? No. 45, the first movement of Part 3.

Now, some of you may be wondering what the point of all this actually is. OK, so these gospel guys, working almost exactly 250 years later than Handel decided to swap a few things round in their gospel version. So what? It’s still really respectful, innit? Does it matter? The point is that Jesus lives and achieved the victory over sin and death! That’s the point! We want people to go home with that message, don’t we?

This may seem like a digression, but I assure you it is not. Stay with me. So, growing up and getting into music and going to more and more classical music concerts as a schoolboy, whenever there was an encore, it was often much more laid back and introspective than the final tempestuous, virtuosic shakedown that often characterised the final piece of the programme. Orchestral and choral concerts would not feature encores, but chamber music concerts would, especially solo recitals.

For some reason, as I began to become professionally established as a bandleader and music director, I began to make a habit of not making my final piece big, bold and brassy. Before I even knew how to articulate this fact, I was trying to leave my audience with something to think about as they left the venue. And as time passed, I realised what the instinct within me (for which I can only credit the Almighty) was pointing me towards and as I morphed from being primarily a jazz pianist into being primarily a gospel choral director, I was building sets where the last piece was a serious reflection on the incredible goodness of God, and not a fast-moving gospel romp with ‘phat’ harmonies and heavy action from the rhythm section. And lots of black Christians really did not like this – including in my own church!

Handel really was a genius. I’m a dude with some serious talent, but no genius. But I believe that the same instinct calls all earnest musicians to the best level of thought – right across genres and cultural boundaries and anything else that divides space and time. And when I look at the theology in the texts and musical settings in Part 3 of Messiah, I see something much more profound than could ever be the case if we ended  with the Hallelujah Chorus.

Forgetting music for a second – the gospel message is frequently sold as a groove in which Jesus’ death on the cross means that we don’t have to die for our sins. So yeah, we should try to be good and all, ’cause sin’s not cool. But if you sin, it’s not the end ’cause God’s grace is amazing.

And all too often, that’s where it stops. But the gospel does not end with a lovely panegyric on God’s grace – it ends with the truth that Jesus is coming back one day and when He does, SIN will END!

This is the message of the book of Revelation. The Second Coming of Jesus is only possible because He came the first time and succeeded in His mission of redemption for the entire human race! And so it is all the more serious that the theological journey in that original Messiah takes us beyond the Passion and Resurrection to the supreme manifestation of worship and praise to the Son of God in Revelation Chapter 5. What is the final movement of Part 3 entitled? Worthy is the Lamb – with text from Revelation Chapter 5.

The redeemed of the Lord will sing a new song, a song of Moses and the Lamb. But here’s the thing: do we need to wait to get to heaven to sing a new song? Or can we begin to sing some new songs of our own here on earth – a ‘rehearsal’ for heaven, if your mind can handle that idea?

I’m sorry, but the fact that there is a greater reality beyond the Cross itself – but one made possible by what happened on the Cross – that is just the biggest idea ever. And that’s why Handel recognises this by blowing up the show with the Hallelujah Chorus, only to then immediately use that famous Joban text I Know that My Redeemer Liveth (from the KJV of course) and take us to the book of Revelation, and a deeper, more subtle and more glorious praise ending. And this theology is just lost when you follow the Soulful Messiah programme!

And this is why to do the work of a Levite requires that you know your Bible as well as your life allows and be as theologically literate as is feasible…

I know this much – as I stand on the threshold of the most serious ministry project I have ever been asked to undertake due to the fact that it requires me to drive the agenda for music and worship for an entire church conference spanning half a country, I am not planning to work to the musical standards of what has become the norm in that conference. I am refusing to allow the limitations of our church musicians and singers to dictate the standard I should be aiming for in my own musical practice. In fact, I have never been more determined to make the most of the musical talent that God has given me and some of what I intend to do even in the next twelve months – including conducting my very first full-length Messiah with choir, soloists and orchestra – simply cannot be achieved with my own church members, because we have not sown seeds that make such a harvest possible. But inspired as I am and will continue to be by the great master composers of both past and present eras, I also know that I am called to express and articulate the gospel in my own compositions and arrangements, many of which will require performing abilities that very, very few people in my church conference possess.

But I also see young people whose talent for music may not be especially immense, but they are singing their own songs and people are being blessed. Just because you’re not a world-class composer does not mean you cannot sing a new song unto the Lord. And that fact extends right across generations.

My fellow Levites, let us pledge to honour our Redeemer with the best level of musical service that we can offer. Handel believed in God, but did not make a commitment to follow Jesus like many of us have done. So if he could write such an incredible piece of music, what will your faith experience inspire you to write?

Good and evil are NOT equal!

 

It was in trying to craft a first sentence of this post that I realised all over again how deeply unwise some generalisations are. What do people believe regarding ‘good’ and ‘evil?’ And do they arrive at the positions that they hold on their own terms, or do they merely appropriate the arguments and ideas of other persons who have actually thought through these issues?

I am indebted to fellow-pilgrim-and-fellow-blogger David Wood for the following:

Here’s an excellent written debate between Christopher Hitchens (God Is not Great) and Douglas Wilson (Letter from a Christian Citizen) on the topic “Is Christianity Good for the World?” Both participants are good writers and quite witty. I think Wilson won by a significant margin, as Hitchens failed to make a strong case and never really answered Wilson’s objections. Hitchens briefly mentions the Problem of Evil, though the real value of the debate (for purposes of this blog) is the discussion of objective moral values.

In his opening, Wilson raises the issue:

In your concluding paragraph you make a great deal out of your individualism and your right to be left alone with the “most intimate details of [your] life and mind.” Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual? How does this individualism of yours flow from the premises of atheism? Why should anyone in the outside world respect the details of your thought life any more than they respect the internal churnings of any other given chemical reaction? That’s all our thoughts are, isn’t that right? Or, if there is a distinction, could you show how the premises of your atheism might produce such a distinction?

Wilson repeats his challenge in every imaginable way, yet Hitchens’s most detailed response is this:

Our morality evolved. Just as we have. Natural selection and trial-and-error have given us the vague yet grand conception of human rights and some but not yet all of the means of making these rights coherent and consistent.

Wilson, of course, had already challenged this response:

I have been asking you to provide a warrant for morality, given atheism, and you have mostly responded with assertions that atheists can make what some people call moral choices. But what I have been after is what rational warrant they can give for calling one choice “moral” and another choice “not moral.” You finally appealed to “innate human solidarity,” a phrase that prompted a series of pointed questions from me. In response, you now tell us that we have an innate predisposition to both good and wicked behavior. But we are still stuck. What I want to know (still) is what warrant you have for calling some behaviors “good” and others “wicked.” If both are innate, what distinguishes them? What could be wrong with just flipping a coin?

I’m not sure why, but every time I hear theists bring up this objection, I actually expect atheists to come up with some sort of reasoned answer. My expectation may be put as follows: “Here Hitchens has written a bestseller on why Christianity is bad for the world. Surely he must have carefully thought through these issues. Hence, when asked for an explanation for his moral views, he will be able to give one.” Yet he wasn’t able to give one. Wilson sums up the situation nicely:

You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister who wrote in the margin of his notes, “Argument weak. Shout here.”

(Wilson’s assessment here applies not only to Hitchens, but also to Dawkins, Harris, and other atheist fundamentalists.)

~

Literate, thoughtful atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens are very clear on what they see as the self-evident fact that there is no need for anyone to theorise about the origins of morality in a world in which there is no deity of any sort whatsoever, much less one who serves as the author of morality. Hitchens argued that morality actually evolved. Daniel Dennett continues to argue (by virtue of still being alive) that free will itself has also evolved.

Reading the above-mentioned exchange between Hitchens and theologian Douglas Wilson, I was once again struck with how God works. My father taught me as a teenager that no one would ever enter the Kingdom of God through argument alone. I remember accepting that with one part of my mind, and yet still spending much of the first ¾ years of my adulthood exercising my prerogative for straight hand-to-hand combat of the debate/argument variety. I was (surprise, surprise) not close to the levels of erudition that Christian apologists like Wilson have reached – but I was very earnest. I remember getting to my 23rd birthday and re-thinking all of the ways in which I was currently contending for the faith. Because even then I could see that there are compelling arguments against Christianity too! What was a person to believe? A good argument? Or something beyond mere argument?

One of the things that made that change necessary was a stock-take of my own character, and my recognition of my own desperate need for this gospel message to be true. From around that point in time, I have understood that there is a peace to be found in basic righteous conduct – and yet, there are many atheists and secular persons who adhere to a basic code of morality that in far more cases than would be ideal supersedes that of many Christians. One of the biggest challenges for those in Christian ministry is the phenomenon whereby folk accept the gospel, and then stop thinking.

Way too many Christians in my own sphere of life (and I lead a very multi-denominational existence whilst remaining grounded in conservative, biblical Seventh-Day Adventism) learn how to stop asking ‘why?’ Now, there are many questions that we simply cannot answer, but there are many questions that need to be asked – and answered – for real, biblical faith to actually grow and lead a person to a deeper walk with God.

I have found myself incredibly vexed with Christians who are not interested in asking the hard questions, but this morning, I know that a more charitable approach has never been more necessary. The battle to live a genuinely consistent spiritual life in each and every sphere of human existence has never been fiercer. No sooner has one fought one set of dragons and been victorious than the next set show up, more determined to get you than the last set. This reality is the framework for my current evaluation of debate-style outreach and evangelism – it has its place, and God has called some people to it (Amen!). However, it cannot ever supersede the straight narration of the gospel message in power.

Therefore, for a person to stick around long enough to hear the gospel message, they have to accept that there is something about their lives that they would like to be more than it is. If good and evil are equal forces, then what can a person hope for? Hitchens may not have hoped for anything, but there are many people who are hoping for something more.

How many of us on this earth would actively like to be more evil? More murderous? More cowardly? Less truthful? Less kind? How many of us read about the terrible things that people do to each other on an hourly-basis and aspire to be like those perpetrators? How many people seek to behave in a way that guarantees that someone will hate them because of the pain that they have inflicted on another?

Sure, some will ‘say’ yes to some or all of the above. It’s up to us whether we really believe them or not. I am not attempting to make a statistically-beyond-reproach categorical statement here. I am asking a question. Who wants to be a more evil person than they already are?

The desire to be a better person  is not the sole provenance of religious adherents – including and especially Christians, who frequently learn from other Christians how to stop thinking about things and follow a wave of Christianised social behavioural protocols. The desire to BE more is as universal as anything else that really is universal.

And that is part of the reason why I offer the statement that good and evil are not equal.

Satan, the author of sin, and by extension the evil that has followed as a result – is a created being. He does not hold equal status with God. This is a thought that in recent times has offered me much in the way of comfort. God did not create sin, but He did create Lucifer. Sin remains a mystery – but that it did grow in Lucifer’s heart is something that we can either accept or reject.

God had a choice before humankind was formed – to exterminate the human project at the first act of sin, or to put a system of redemption in place. And so we have the mystery of the Incarnation – God the Creator entering His own creation, entering time and space and accepting the limitations of humanity.

This is beyond comprehension. This is beyond reason. This is beyond cognition itself.

But great art is also beyond cognition. It is also beyond the ability of people to ‘explain’ how it came into existence. And for many, great art is not comprehensible. However, these are still human creations – albeit inspired by something (and sometimes Someone?!) from outside humanity. Music is an amazing example of this.

A drugs baron can exercise many ‘admirable’ qualities: perseverance, fortitude, high-level organisational skills, maybe even person-management (although this may well take the form of controlled manipulation…), time management, patience…

Those things do not stop being good just because they can be used in the service of evil. Evil depends on the misappropriation of good in order to succeed in the practical realm. But the reverse is self-evidently not the case. For good to succeed, evil is never a necessity. Sometimes people have attempted to justify the means by which an end is achieved – but by resorting to evil, they have lost their moral compass. Moreover, they will never know if their original noble aims (assuming that those aims really were noble) would still have been achieved had they not tried to “help matters along…”

This is not trying to be an exhaustive exploration of the concepts of good and evil. It is not purporting to be rigorously academic. It is just a blog post, the writing of which has played a part in my devotions this morning. But I mean what I say. Good and evil really are not equal. So, how do we know which side we are on? Just because you say you are a Christian, does that really make you a champion of ‘good?’

As I consider the flaws in my own character, I have never been grateful that there is hope that I can be more – in Jesus Christ. It is all about Romans 7 once again – but especially the last verse…

Monday, Monday…good for some, but not for others!

It’s weird to think that ten years ago last year (i.e. 2001), the precursor to X-Factor hit our screens and produced a band called ‘Hear’Say’ – who (on the surface) seemed to be a really nice bunch of folk – but whose band career lasted a grand total of 18 months…

It is weird how some people’s minds work. I have taken absolutely no interest in X-Factor for some time now, but I guiltily watched every episode of Popstars back in ’01. That had an innocence about it that X-Factor wouldn’t recognise if it sat down next to it at dinner. And one of the things I remember was that as part of elimination process, the Mamas and Papas song “Monday, Monday” was one of the things the hopefuls had to work on. And there was this guy, Darius Danesh, who sang, played guitar, and was just by some distance the most all-round musically talented person on the show, who led the others in sing-alongs and just left an indelible impression on both his fellow competitors and the viewers (well, those who knew something about music). The way Darius sang and played on ‘Monday, Monday’ inspired those singing with him to better things – and the song remains in my head because of that show to this day.

Darius somehow didn’t make it through as a winner on Popstars, but a year later, when the show was re-branded Pop Idol the British public voted him through to the finals, where he finished third. Here’s where the story gets interesting – Simon Cowell offers him a deal to sing whatever (covers?! don’t remember), and the dude says, “NO!”

Instead, he hooks up with U2’s producer and next thing you know, he’s got a No.1 hit and a platinum-selling debut album…

I just looked Darius Danesh up again and it seems he has gone on to bigger and better things beyond pop music – changed his name – and is doing really well! He has done a LOT in the last eleven years.

So, look at this. ITV screen a reality-TV pop show on which some not-well-known British youngsters sing a really famous pop song by an American band from the 60’s and 70’s – and for years I only know the song through them. It was several hours ago that I went to look up the song and that’s when I learnt the story of the writer, John Philips.

My father always taught me that one never had to read fiction if one desired ‘excitement’ in reading – for real life was always stranger than fiction. As I know that Dad never positioned himself to be aware of some of the more ‘out there’ literature (William S Burroughs and Anthony Burgess both come to mind), I did not take his dictum as literal unqualified truth – but I did accept his basic premise then, and still do.

Popstars took place in the first quarter of 2001, and I’m pretty sure that they did the “Monday, Monday” section before the beginning of March. John Phillips was 65 – not young, but not old, either – but by the end of March 18th, he had died of heart failure in Los Angeles.

Eight years later, his daughter, Mackenzie, actually claimed in the media that her father engaged in an incestuous relationship with her – a story ferociously denounced by two of Phillips’ former wives. However, what that did was draw attention to the insanely debauched life history of what was one of the wildest men ever to work in the entertainment industry.

Phillips had a less-than-wonderful childhood and with bad memories of relations with his own father, he vowed not to repeat what he had seen. Nevertheless, as journalists have since detailed, he created a private hell that was much, much worse than his father’s.

Somewhere in the heart of his being, despite his undoubted talent for songwriting and arranging, John Phillips nurtured and fed a self-loathing that in the end took him to the grave. There is a terrible story that I will let you read in the words of the Guardian’s Chris Campion:

In August 1977, John Phillips was supposed to be recording the album with Keith Richards that would mark his comeback. Studio time at Media Sound in New York was booked from 9pm but it might be 2am before the pair – two of the most charismatic stars of their generation and now two inveterate junkies – finally showed or 5am or not at all. The first port of call for the pair was always the bathroom. “No one wanted to be the one to go back there,” says studio engineer Harvey Goldberg, “because we didn’t know if we would find them dead.”

Dealers hovered around the studio angling for business. Goldberg recalls one girl asking if he wanted to see her scrapbook. “I just assumed that she was some sort of groupie and had loads of photos of her with the different stars she’d been with. Instead, she pulls out this scrapbook and it’s full of drug prescriptions from the 1700s through the 1800s. It was a collection of drug prescriptions. And I thought, ‘Wow!'”

Goldberg remembers Richards standing looking perplexed by his guitar amp one night. “I go over to find out if I can help him out with something. He’s just looking at his guitar amp, he looks at me, looks back at the guitar amp. Finally, it’s like a lightbulb went on over his head. A big smile comes over his face and he says, ‘I forgot my guitar.'”

Another time: “John comes stumbling out of the bathroom and into the control room. There are little blood stains on his shirt sleeve. It’s so obvious that he’s been shooting up. He sees me cracking my knuckles and says, ‘You know, you really shouldn’t do that. That could be a problem for you later in life.'”

As farcical and surreal as these incidents were, Goldberg was struck by how sad it all was. “These were grown men,” he says. After they had blown $170,000 in studio time, the sessions ground to a halt. A mix of the album was passed to Atlantic Records, but the label buried it. The finished master went missing for 30 years, only turning up among Phillips’s possessions in 2007. He knew that he had no one to blame but himself. “I had sabotaged the greatest break of my career since the Mamas and the Papas,” he wrote in his 1986 autobiography Papa John, confessing to an “intense self-loathing”.

So, what’s the connection between Darius Campbell (as he is now) and John Phillips? A reality TV pop show screened the year of Phillips’ death… Darius has re-invented himself, exploring opera and big band music, and become a huge West End star. Phillips went from project to project, desperate to build on the foundations of the phenomenal success of songs such as “Monday, Monday” – but in the end the demons in his head took the very success he had and took his life.

I will never, never hear this song in the same way ever again.

When Darius didn’t win through as part of Popstars and Pop Idol, some would have said that he failed. But look at him now, compared to those who ‘won!’

And who would have thought that a guy who could write and arrange a song like “Monday, Monday” – so good folk will continue to sing it for a long time yet – would be so unable to hold himself and his life together? But there is a deeper and darker truth here – there’s a little bit of John in all of us.

He couldn’t say ‘no’ to himself. And in his case, the spiral descent was horrible beyond measure. We all have areas – little things – in which we struggle to say no when we most need to say no. They may not be class-A drugs and sexual fantasies – but they will still hurt us spiritually. And if we continue to feed those parts of us, we will die spiritually.

Here at the outset of 2012, let us try to be wise enough to learn from the mistakes of others so that we reduce our own and enjoy a better quality of life than would otherwise be the case. There, but for the grace of God, go we…

An end-of-year challenge to gospel choral directors

For two evenings in a row, I have been doing rehearsals with a composite group of singers from an incredibly wide array of backgrounds and personalities (but all from within the African-Caribbean racial/cultural bandwidth). We’re preparing for an end-of-year service at church.

One of the most important things I was taught as a ‘classical’ choral conductor was that it was essential to be ‘useful to your singers.’ However, this is much more clearly defined in classical music where for starters, everyone sings from the same score that the conductor has. In addition, there are obvious issues and protocols that define what singers expect of a conductor.

However, in gospel music, there is no such standardisation of ‘best practice.’

I have had the privilege of working with groups who were so unpromising at the start that almost no-one thought they would amount to anything. And I’ve worked with some extremely gifted singers who make their living from it. And all points in between. And the biggest challenge in gospel music – particularly in the black community (and that includes the church community)?

CONCENTRATION.

It was very nicely suggested to me that I used too many words last night. Now, upon reflection, I fully accept that as a valid criticism. Whatever genre of music and makeup of the ensemble, conductors and musical directors are usually prone to talking too much – and physically doing too much.

However, the REASONS for each conductor/MD who talks too much are never the same. Right now, much as I would love to give you a detailed breakdown what it is that I am trying to achieve when I talk to the singers I am leading, that subject (also) needs a separate blog post. What I will do, however, is highlight the fact that as a choral director, you may one day find yourself in front of a group of singers who simply do not share your musicianship values. They may not care about singing in tune. They may not care about singing in time. They may not be bothered about knowing the words, or even about the notes in their part.

They may not like the same type of choral sound that you favour.

They may not care one little bit about communication values in choral singing – as long as they get to do their thing individually. There is a real selfishness in the mindsets of many gospel choral singers – which is ‘anti-musical.’

These are serious challenges in a choral context where it is all about ‘music and singing’ in and of itself. But they are hugely magnified when one is in a church context where God is supposed to be the primary source of worship. And when the whole ensemble is not mentally ready to make music, how on earth is one supposed to lead them in praise – never mind worship?

Something has to change. And the bad news is that it usually needs to be the choral director. With that position goes far more personal musical and spiritual responsibility than many of us care to think about. Sometimes the skills that work so well for those of us who conduct professionally are simply wasted in local church settings. Nevertheless, I have my conducting teachers to thank for ensuring that I did not take a decision to stop conducting amateur choral groups at the lower end of the talent spectrum. Regardless of genre, I was taught that whoever my singers needed me to be, that is who I needed to be.

My singers in this group cannot deal with all the things I want to make happen. And no amount of well-crafted explanations using words will get them to that place if their capacity to deal with me and my use of words is not as developed as other ways of taking in information. So I have to accept this, and either throw my teddy in the corner – or humble myself and find another way through and re-think my aspirations for this group.

NOTHING in music challenges the self-identity (and self-pride) more than having to deal with the fact that as a choral director, one is not only a servant of the music – one is a servant of the singers. This is not about power-wielding, or alpha musicianship ideals, or about best choral practice. This is about finding different ways to help ordinary people do that most extraordinary thing of praising God.

Last night, I concluded once again that I cannot help most of the choir members in this group to connect to a way of thinking in music that is more than they can deal with. Only God Himself can help these people offer Him the best praise in song of which they are capable. Only He can help me to help them do their best.

As a choral director, it is never about you. It is always about the music – the message – and about others. However, eradicating self from anything is always hard. The singers do not ‘belong’ to you. The music does not ‘belong’ to you.

How can all of us be what our singers need us to be without compromising the most important things?

The answer to that will never be found between the pages of a book, or the notes from a course…

…but on our knees.

A suggestion from Socrates…

Well, it is great to be back in the land of blog – the past few months have been quite insane, but God is good and I am still alive and breathing. This post is written for a very good friend who asked me a recent question on facebook in response to something I had written.

That ‘something’ was in fact a ‘status update’ that read thus:

Heads-up to all those serious about self-discovery: don’t start the journey if you’re not ready to live with the fact that you may not like some of what you discover…

I can tell you quite categorically that as we come towards the end of 2011, I am not the same human being who began the year. Well, on one hand I am. However, at the same time, I am not. I’m really not. And a major part of this has come about through circumstances allowed and indeed ordained by God Himself which have been expressly set up to bring me to the most serious position of self-awareness that I have ever possessed.

The price has been monstrous. I have a completely new level of sympathy for those who run away from self-discovery on a truly genuine level. But I would still not encourage anyone to do anything other than go on that journey for themselves.

It was with no small measure of déjà-vu that I came across this article from Scientific American recently; check it out for yourself:

We humans are introspective. We observe patterns of our own behavior and we have memories for review. So you probably think you know yourself pretty well, right?

Not so fast. In fact, others can have much more accurate impressions of us than we do. That’s according to a review article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The challenge in knowing oneself is that we have blind spots. These gaps are fueled by fears and an unconscious drive to maintain a particular self-image or self-worth. One study showed that even watching a recording of yourself that may be at odds with your self-perception does not change that self-perception. But others watching the same tape easily spot the inconsistency.

A 2010 study found that friends are significantly more accurate in judging traits like intelligence, talkativeness and creativity—traits that are observable and measurable. So when a friend says, “You know, you’re really smart,” it’s very possible that you really are smart.

What we can accurately gauge is our own levels of anxiety and self-esteem. So when giving a presentation, for instance, you’re probably much more aware of state of mind than your audience is. And speaking as a presenter, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

—Christie Nicholson

Now, without question, there are huge questions that would need to be addressed before one could accept many of the statements in that mini-article as literal fact. But it certainly provokes some questions that one may not otherwise think of…and this is precisely where I am going. How well does anyone actually know themselves? More pointedly, how well do we know how well we know about anything at all? Let me break that down. Let’s say that my (imaginary) friend Rosie claims to know herself really well. How does she know this? How does she know that she really has gotten a true insight into herself and that her own perception of who she is does actually correspond with the ACTUAL reality of whom she really is?

Yes, the evidence does suggest that it is easier for us to figure other people out more easily than we can figure out ourselves. Therefore, for many people, it is now a ‘given’ that any given person does not know themselves as well as others do – because external people see us more ‘objectively’ than we see ourselves.  However, is it reasonable to make this a ‘given?’ Is it not also true that people make value-judgements about the character and make-up of other people’s personas based on their own experiences, presuppositions, biases and more? I certainly know what it is to be with people who refuse to accept my own serious and palpable enthusiasm for whatever it happened to be was in any way real – because they themselves could not muster any real kind of enthusiasm of that nature themselves for anything at all – and in imposing this on everyone else, they were somewhat cynical of the ‘realness’ of my own cynicism.

A few took on the challenge of exploring the vibe, and some have become great friends as a result. Others continue to think that I am a strange and not-good person. We cannot win with everyone!

So this is where this particularly well-known bit of advice from Socrates comes into its own: “know thyself.”

Earlier in my adult life, I was one of those people who spent vast amounts of time analysing, assessing and appraising other people’s characters. I became particularly good at this – but then what I did not realise was that I was unconsciously yet deliberately using this as a chief deflecting tactic to avoid the same ruthlessly clinical analysis of myself. It was not until I read the marvellously candid-yet-wonderfully-hopeful Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Goeschel (a book that I will soon be giving to a friend of mine who is a full-time pastor himself – I feel led to do that for him, much as I want to keep it for myself and I do now believe that God is behind this impulse) that I realised the simple truth that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions!

I spent my ENTIRE adult life doing that until I read that statement – and from that moment, my world turned upside down. Not that I always get everything correct and in sync first time round these days – but more that I no longer harbour the quiet complacency of my own state of being based on what I meant to do  – even if I didn’t actually do it. I now have no choice but to constantly assess the relationship between my intentions and my actions – and by the stripes, I do not come out well at all on more occasions than I am comfortable admitting even to myself in my most private moments.

[I have a funny feeling that this statement appears elsewhere in another blog post, but who cares?!]

This is where we’re going: as my levels of actual self-knowledge have gone up and up and up, I have found myself unable to find a place of rest where I can plateau out for a while. Everything that I could do to make my life easier without compromising my principles has simply not worked out. So when ‘easy life’ didn’t work out, I pursued ‘busyness’ instead – only to find myself with nothing to do – and I have since realised that I could have used that time to advance certain areas of my life – but hindsight is hind-sight for a reason! Any fool can be clever after the fact.

Had it not been for John Eldredge’s writings, I might have lost hope altogether – but God used those writings to keep a sense of balance within me – and far from being all-sufficient in themselves, they pointed me back to the Word. I had the strongest sense that I was being thwarted by a loving God who knew that my version of how things were supposed to work out in my life was not necessarily the best thing in the long run. One part of me fully accepted that. But another part of me could not handle the fact that I had no grasp on why things were happening as they were. And the internal conflict (and subsequent consequences) that this created is the worst thing that I have EVER experienced in my entire life. God has done some amazing things in 2011. But other things have been disastrous. Why would He allow some things to work out and not others?!?!?!?!?!?!?

The answer is both simple and yet devastating. Despite having achieved a quite astounding level of self-knowledge, I still did not know enough about certain aspects of myself to be able to continue growing into WHO God wants and needs me to be for my soul’s salvation – and this before we get to the not-so-small matter of the work He has called me to do in Christian ministry. Every family has its problems, but not all problems are equal. Mine is uniquely complicated, and includes a vast number of children who were not all born into positive circumstances. One example: the extent of the irresponsible sexual behaviour on the part of certain of my progenitors has had a monumental impact on the lives of my parents’ generations, on my own generation and (if the current evidence is anything to go by) will continue to impact upon the subsequent generations that will follow. In the widest sense of the word, both my father’s family and my mother’s family have massive dysfunctions. Both families have one abiding common denominator – folk think with their emotions more than with their minds – with the result being that the cognitive damage suffered by MANY members of my family is quite extraordinary. Yes indeed – for those of you who really have not known that the emotional choices we make actually impact our overall cognitive functional abilities over time – so it really is the case that the more emotionally indisciplined we are, the more we hurt our ability to think properly in general! This is a massive concept – go look for Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golem if you have never encountered it before (and even if you have – but have not yet managed to read about it for your own self).

Right across my family spectrum, genuinely rational thought is at a real premium. So this begs the question – what makes any of us think that we are more rational than anyone else?

And what qualifies me to comment on other people’s inability to think coherently and rationally – whether in my family or not?

Well, anyone is free to draw his or her own conclusions about my sanity or reason. I have spent 2011 wondering why I seem to be so strong in my understanding of certain things and so weak in others. And as I look at my wider family and shake my head in bewilderment at various things, I do wonder why I am not more like them…

…oh, wait up just one second –

– actually, I really am like my family, but God has facilitated numerous circumstances that have enabled me to learn, process, think and analyse very differently to virtually all of my (many) relatives. He has also shoehorned me into corners to test my faith and force me to learn to pray different prayers – real prayers, as opposed to earnest academic prayers that are so theologically careful that I end up not relating to God as a Father but as a theology tutor in whose good books I desperately want to be.

I am not fundamentally different to my family at all. But my LIFE has been fundamentally different to both the members of my nuclear family and my wider family. Moreover, my education and experiences have taught me things that even my parents have had no way to learn and know. That is what helps me to see certain things. I am not some wonderfully ‘on-it’ individual who has transcended the limitations of birth, circumstances and culture – I am a peculiar person who has been led on a unique journey by God Himself to learn two things: a) who God really is; b) who I really am.

Discovering the weaknesses in my parents and other older relatives was much more fun when I did not realise that their weaknesses were actually mine too. Some of you readers may not accept that and I won’t fight you, but I stand by that last sentence. Yes, your grandparents may have been racist and you may not be – but is that because you ARE fundamentally different, or because you have LEARNED differently? The two things are not the same!

Discovering the weaknesses in my friends was also more fun until I realised that those who you spend time with, you become like. Now, some of us may have been exceptions to this rule – but even so, we may have taken more of what we didn’t want to take from our friends and associates than we have ever realised. Just because you are not ‘easily led’ in any obvious sense does not mean that you are immune from peer pressure. Many people who become popular and respected for their independence of mind and being end up having to work so hard to maintain the things that gave them that increased social cachet that they are no longer truly independent – unless they stick with being real, in which case they may yet lose the status they once had if their views and behaviour are no longer what others choose to find socially admirable. So who chooses ‘being real’ over ‘being respected?’

The gospel message saved both of my parents, but the gospel is not merely one of many ‘lifestyle choices.’ True, too many Christians do live as if that is all that it is, but it is more than that. I have always known this, but sometimes I want to fit in too. I get tired of walking on my own and I want to belong. And the price to ‘belong?’ My real self.

Ten years ago, in 2001, I nearly left the Christian faith and the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.

In 2011, I came the closest I could ever come to leaving since my experiences of 2001, but despite everything, God has kept me right here in this message. The gospel itself means more than ever before, and the message of the SDA church remains the pathway for me as a conservative Bible-believing Christian. And in knowing myself better, I am more rounded, more empathetic than ever before, more able to connect than ever before – in short, I am a radically superior human being to the one I was this time last year. God’s training regime is never what I would have chosen if I was in charge – but as I want to avoid pain like most of us – I would have gone soft on me. Of course I would. And I would be less as a result.

There are still battles to fight and mountains to climb, but because I have come through this year with my faith still in one piece, I know that the best is yet to come. Praise God, He is the one calling the shots.

So, bring on 2012 in JESUS’ NAME!