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

So, Theomusicologist, you want us to talk about Christian Berdahl. Who exactly is he? Click here.

Why are you ‘responding’ to him? Because we come from the same church, share a commitment to both music and ministry, and yet the current evidence suggests that  it is impossible that we could ever be partners in ministry.

So what? Paul and Barnabas parted company because Paul didn’t want to give John Mark a second chance. Who says everyone in the same faith has to always be best buddies? Good point – but here’s the difference: we have no reason to presume that John Mark’s theology was anything other than on point, or else Barnabas would not have been going out to do mission with him. This was about character, not doctrine!

My issue with Christian Berdahl is not even theological. It is his ideology, his pseudo-musicology and the way that this affects his theology which concern me. He seems a perfectly nice human being and I like to think that his Christian sincerity really is just that.

Oh come on! Give me a break! That’s not very nice, is it? What qualifies you to criticise him, anyway? Well, this is not about criticism for the sake of it, my friend. This is about truth. Truth matters – Berdahl himself would say that. And he believes that he is propagating truth. I am coming out publically and saying that while some of what he teaches is nothing but the truth, some of what he wants you to believe really is not the truth and therefore should not be believed at all. This is objective, and both ‘academic’ as well as ‘ministry-centered.’ If you’re going to ask me what qualifies me to talk about this, I can show you my resume  – or CV if that’s more familiar. But this is not about academic apropos – this is about me exercising my right as a member of that same church to raise some very serious questions about that intellectual integrity of his output. So if you want to hear my side of this, you need to keep reading! 

Okay, fine. So what’s the problem? Oh wait: you said three things…you and these long words. [sigh] Guess we’d best go one at a time. Why did you use the word ‘ideology?’ Well, let me ask you a question: how familiar are you with the actual meaning of this word? Well…I know the word, of course, and I’ve heard it used and read it and stuff, and I’m pretty sure I could use it in a sentence, but…not sure I could, like, actually define it… OK great, thanks for being honest. It doesn’t always happen and it just hacks me off when folk pretend so as not to lose face! I’ll gladly explain.

An ideology is a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. So, it is basically a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things (as in a worldview), or as in several philosophical tendencies, or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a “received consciousness” or product of socialization).

Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics, religion, constructions of social behaviour… STOP right there. OK! I’m pretty sure I’m following you. Now before I get confused, link this to what you’re saying about Christian Berdahl. Sorry, yes, I switched into lecture mode, my bad! So this makes me think that I had better break my response to him down into smaller and more manageable chunks…

What, you mean there really is going to be more than one post responding to his ideas? Absolutely! Is that really necessary? Well, he has twelve hours of teaching on five DVDs which appear to be selling like fresh-out-of-oven-baked-confectionery-of-whatever-description, so as I don’t yet have a media setup which allows me to do that, I am very happy to set down some shorter written responses. 

Okay, okay. So… I see. Syncopation – that’s what you want to start with? It sure is! Okay, I’m listening.

There are several things that Christian Berdahl has said that have impugned his academic integrity on the subject of music – and in the context of Christian worship. But syncopation has been a ‘hot’ topic in the ‘worship wars’ across the denominational spectrum for years – and in my church, it continues to be a subject about which those who know the least pontificate the most (this is not limited to music…)!

Check out this video:

If you begin to watch from about 6:40 or thereabouts, things are getting interesting, and by 7:12 he’s just about to launch into one of the most jaw-dropping statements I heard at any point in the last calendar year!

Yes, yes, fine. That’s the build-up, got that…now please get to the point!! Okay – here’s what he said:

“Syncopation…all occult experts around the world agree…syncopation is the source of all occult power in pagan worship services.” 

Really?? Interesting – that’s exactly what the interview said when he heard that, too! So, what are you saying exactly? You disagree?

“Disagree” is both the right word and the wrong word. That word puts us onto the threshing-ground of subjective opinion. There is nothing in what statement which leads the hearer to think that he is offering an ‘opinion.’ He is telling us exactly how it is, and he expects to be taken seriously! So you’re now saying that this is not true? Are you accusing him of telling lies? Oh man, why do some people always assume that if a person accuses another person of speaking something other than the truth, that they are therefore accusing them of lying? Because that’s the opposite of telling the truth, innit? Er…no. Not that simple. To tell a lie presupposes actual intent to deceive. To be genuinely misinformed and speak an untruth is not necessarily driven by an intent to deceive. These are the types of over-simplistic folly that make it much harder to be credible in conversation, whoever you are and whatever you believe! 

I understand. So you would have us believe that Christian Berdahl has made an untruthful statement in this regard, but that he has not necessarily set out to deceive anyone? Yes, from a ‘legal’ standpoint you have expressed this correctly. BUT – this particular statement worries me more than usual. Why? Well…it’s like this: was it necessary to try that hard to convince the interviewer that ALL of the occult experts around the entire world agree on this point? What kind of research project would it take to be able to make that statement truthfully? How much research has he actually done on the subject? And in how many languages? Over how many years is he talking? What’s his definition of ‘occult?’ That word is less straightforward than many Christians like to think…

And then, what exactly is syncopation? How does that work? And in the context of the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ example, are  his use of the words ‘beat’ and ‘accent’ even technically correct?

Whoa. Okay, you are not here to play fun and games, are you? Not for a microsecond. And I will tell you why. Seven years ago, I attended some seminars by a gentleman called Brian Neumann. He stood up, told us that he had “studied these things…he knew” and almost everyone took him seriously. I was a graduate student in the anthropology of music at that time and I went and spoke to him. It was not a good exchange. I soon discovered that he had no formal qualifications in musicology or theology. 

That was not and is not a big deal in itself. What was a big deal was that he made a number of point-blank erroneous statements. The kind which no self-respecting student would allow themselves to make when presenting their ‘research’ to an audience. I tried to explain this to a few people in my church, but no-one listened. 

Since then, Brian Neumann has had to resign his ministry due to personal indiscretions. But he had already impugned his integrity by publically making statements that were not the truth, and insisting that he had ‘studied.’ We all make mistakes. Large and small. But why try to make out that you have studied more than you have?

Okay. Are you saying that you think that Christian Berdahl is doing the same kind of thing? Hole-in-one. I’m not  equating him to Brian Neumann, who is still a child of God and who I am told is on his way back spiritually (Praise God!), but I am saying that this is the same sort of vibe. Berdahl is a media professional with a gift for music who appears to have overstepped the bounds of his technical knowledge and now wants to propagate ideas which will not bear scrutiny. This time, I’m not going to let the ignorance and myopia of my church members get in the way of me making a public stand against these wrong ideas. But I can see that we had better halt this conversation and pick it up next time. How does that sound?

That sounds good. Okay, until next time. God bless! God bless you too!

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A few thoughts on addiction

In my own life experience, in both Christian and non-Christian circles I have encountered the idea that a person can be addicted to something good as well as something bad. Sometimes the rationale for this idea is based on Ephesians 5:18, which reads thus: “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (NLT).

So, the idea becomes this: if you are going to be addicted to something, then make it something good (and Christian) – like Bible study, for instance!

On the flip side, folk don’t tend to use the word ‘addicted’ in any positive sense most of the time. From alcohol to doughnuts (yes, this is the British spelling!) to chocolate to Bombay mix to cheese – as well as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs – many users of any or all of the above would have their peers believe they are ‘not addicted.’

Here in the UK the general use of the English language has scarcely been worse in the history of general education since general education became available. So few of us really know the actual definitions of many of the words we use, and this sort of ignorance is increasingly seen as a virtue. Relationships and communications are suffering as a result. However. Question: what exactly does the word ‘addiction’ mean?

Let us be grateful that Wikipedia is still with us:

“Historically, addiction has been defined as physical and/or psychological dependence on psychoactive substances (for example alcohol,tobaccoheroin, caffeine and other drugs) which cross the blood-brain barrier once ingested, temporarily altering the chemical milieu of the brain.”

This works for most of us, I think. But for many of us, the definition stops there, and so our grasp of the word-concept is less broad (and less accurate) than would be ideal. Interestingly, the American Society of Addiction Medicine begins their definition of addiction by describing it as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”[6][7]

How many of us consider addiction in terms of disease? And ‘chronic disease’ at that?

We can also be addicted to behavioural practices – not just substances. That is why the second definition quoted above is so interesting and enlightening! Anything that stimulates a sense of what the brain regards as a ‘reward’ is logged in the memory, and at times when relief is sought from physical, emotional or psychological pain or distress of whatever sort, the memory of potential reward is stimulated, which then services the motivation needed to consume whatever substance it may be – including food – with the promise of a ‘reward.’

But this ‘reward’ is not really a reward in the most holistically viable, personally fulfilling sense of the word. That is why I used the word ‘relief’ earlier – it is often a means from getting away from something else. It goes without saying that there is way more that could be said on this – the theologian in me has not gotten going yet – but I am pretty sure that anyone who’s gotten this far has gotten the gist of this up to now!

I want to talk about one of my addictions. For years, I have jokingly (and this really is the point!) referred to myself as a “carboholic.” I absolutely LOVE carbohydrates – but especially of the heavy-duty-starch variety: bread, potatoes, pasta, oats, grains…and at times I have had to regulate my cereal eating because I could literally eat half a 500-gram-box of anything from cornflakes to Cheerios to malted cereal at one breakfast sitting, and it was getting expensive! There is pretty much no form of potato product that I cannot consume in quantities that baffle most people.

I have come a long, long way with my ‘carboholism,’ but it has still really caught me out at times. But there are two aspects of this I want to zero in on. Firstly, I am dismayed about the fact that I was able to joke about being addicted to carbohydrates in such a way when addiction is NOT something to joke about! For me to be a carboholic is no longer an amusing joke – it was never a joke in the first place. I know that this is serious because I look to carbohydrate products when I want to celebrate something, and also when I want to drown my sorrows. And since I looked at my overall eating habits in the eye I have been learning just how many Christians besides myself have massive psychological food issues (but I have mentioned this in one or two previous posts).

The second point is this: can you actually be addicted to something that really is good for you?

Or, put another way, if you are addicted to something, what are the chances that it really is a bad thing for you?

Still no time to explore the theology of addiction right now, but – this is why a definition of addiction that focusses on dependency alone is so limited. We are all dependent on water and oxygen to continue life! We all need to interact with other human beings (yes, some will question that, but I’ll defend it to the hilt if need be). A person who is in top physical condition may be unable to go 24 hours without some form of exercise. I know one guy who just LOVES cycling – he is rarely happier than on any form of bike.

Water – oxygen (best in the form of fresh air) – exercise; we could add sunlight and a few other things (not least positive and genuine relationships with other human beings) – is it in any way correct to say that one can be ‘addicted’ to these things because one is dependent on them?

Perhaps we need to differentiate between ‘positive dependency’ and ‘negative dependency.’ Addiction falls into the latter category, and this is now the nexus of my second point: my carboholic dependency of the heavy-duty-starch variety is a more serious problem for me than I have ever realised. For some time I have realised that I may have a wheat allergy, and in the last eight months I have been in a full-scale battle with my body and my mind as I face the fact that I am almost certainly one of those people who really needs to give up gluten for good.

I am finally ready to admit that deep down, some part of me has always been concerned about this capacity I have to smash huge quantities of these sorts of carbs. I mentioned eating half a box of cereal at one go – I also used to eat half a loaf of bread at one go. In both cases I accepted that beyond the financial implications, that was sheer gluttony, so I stopped. But I never dealt with the substance itself, and I see in hindsight that although I stopped eating half a loaf of bread, I creatively found other ways to keep my carb intake higher than necessary and pretend that I wasn’t really doing that.

So, to conclude.

If you are unnaturally dependent on something or someone – you may need to take cold, hard stock of your situation. Positive dependence is one thing. A blind person needs their guide dog. A disabled person needs their carer.  A blog writer needs their internet connection! But if you are unable to do without something or someone – to the point where even if you go two weeks without whatever or whoever it is, you still think about it (or them) more often than not – then I’m not saying that it is bad, or that you are addicted – I would have no right to do that when I don’t know the facts.

But if you have never thought about this issue before, then please think now. Certain friendships – certain practices – certain substances (legal and illegal) – may be hurting you more than helping you – and so you may need to rewire some of your circuitry in order to live a more genuine and positive existence. Bread and pasta and cereal are not evil things, but they are things which ultimately do me more harm than good – and they are things to which I am addicted!

We are to avoid intoxication of all sorts – not just wine – but instead be filled with the Holy Spirit. If you’ve never read the whole of 1 Corinthians 6, only the famous verse 18 – then I do encourage you to prayerfully read the whole chapter. It could change your life forever…