The final response to Christian Berdahl – on everything

So!

Theomusicologist, you do realise that I’ve been waiting for the LONGEST while for you to pick this unfinished business up – but when we spoke on the phone, you said that this might not end how we’d both expected. Care to fill me in? Hang on, let me guess…

…is this by any chance along the lines of: you’re no longer sure what the point of this exchange actually is? Because I’ve come to wonder that myself…so if I’m wrong…

…wow.

Wow.

God is good!

Why do you say that?

Because you’re right!

Really?!

Absolutely.

So…can I get this in your words instead of mine? Sure. You have been – and will continue to be – a good friend and conversation partner. And you know that I have NEVER once tried to tell you what you are supposed to think for yourself. This is indeed true. Of course, I have expressed certain viewpoints very forcefully…

…that’s one way of putting it…

…but in the end, everyone is supposed to weigh evidence and think for themselves.

Sure.

Something has happened in our church that has caused me to realise that this type of explanatory endeavour is in many ways a complete waste of time. What exactly do you mean? Well, you know that we have been debating this whole business of women’s ordination for the last several years.

Uh-huh.

I have heard on outstanding authority that in the end, no-one on either side has changed their mind on the subject.

What does that mean?

Well, I could offer all sorts of answers to that question, almost all of which would make me deeply unpopular with most Adventists…

…since when has that ever stopped you, Theomusicologist?!

*wry smile* I own that, but this is the point: Jesus is coming soon, and we are unquestionably the remnant church of Bible prophecy. The biggest way in which I know this is that we have no biblically-grounded and fully codified theology of music and of worship. We have no worship concept as a church. And for nearly ten years I have been hoping to make a difference in this area of our church life, but in the short term, there is no point in trying to begin a revolution of thought when actual thought has essentially died in many of our churches. Now, before you say anything, I know that this doesn’t sound like I’m going soft, but I honestly tell you that this is a soft answer, and I’m now going to tell you how this applies to the ideas and concepts of our good friend Christian Berdahl.

Okay!

Have you heard the saying:

“A man convinced against his will

Is of the same opinion still?”

No, I can’t say that I have, but I understand it, of course.

Of course.

Wait… Go on! Well…what you’re saying is that no amount of argument will convince anyone who has made up their minds that whatever Christian Berdahl says is right that they are wrong and that he’s wrong – so there is no point in trying to make that point any more. Have I got it?!

Hole in one, my friend. The only people who are going to make a song and dance about this are Seventh-Day Adventists who have such a screwed, uneducated, weak, powerless, ignorant, confused and spellbindlingly naïve concept of the phenomenon of music that nothing and no-one except the Triune God Himself could change their minds, and with some, I think even He would struggle. The institutional myopia, the cultural blindness, the historical ignorance, the musicological bankruptcy – it’s too much to fight all that. Folks who have decided that all syncopation is the work of the devil, and who insist that true worship must look, sound and smell like only what they know have no real idea of what early pioneer worship looked like (EGW has some amazing testimonies), and no real idea how diversity and unity can co-exist in the Spirit without compromise. The biggest shouters against music are not the ones who have studied the subject thoroughly. They are ALL musicological laymen.

Hang on…are you saying that ONLY those with a college or university degree are qualified to talk about music?

So glad you asked. Not at all. Think about all the most effective speakers we have who are untrained. Is there evidence that they have done some hard reading and studying? Yes. And the Holy Spirit has helped them. But watch this: David Asscherick, no less, has come to a position on music that contravenes the standard ‘conservative’ position on music, and folks don’t know what to do with that. The very fact that a rumour has started that GYC won’t ask him back tells us that regardless of the truth of the rumour, there is no security in the notion that a person’s thought can evolve to something outside the archetypal Adventist party line and that there is still room for a diversity of opinion on an issue such as music when on the most important doctrinal questions we have no reason to doubt his commitment to this cause.

Wow…so you’re saying that despite a lack of a formally grounded theology on music, there is still an unwritten position that – if you don’t espouse – you might never be viewed favourably in certain high-up circles in our church?!

Another hole-in-one. You see, there is a whole massive literature on the phenomenon of music. There are so many disciplines in music it is crazy. Here’s a quick list:

  • Musicology (historical)
  • Musicology (critical)
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Music philosophy
  • Music psychology
  • Performance Studies (academic)
  • Music Performance (practical)

I didn’t realise that music could be studied in such an extensive way…what’s the difference between the those last two? How can ‘performance studies’ be academic?

So glad you asked that too. You know, there is a whole academic sub-discipline that looks very critically and very analytically into the metaphysical dimensions of musical performance – but that is not the same thing as learning how to play and sing to a very high standard – which we call ‘music performance.’

And how many of these have you studied, Theomusicologist?! Don’t say all of them…

…erm…

….okay, really?!

…yes, really. Each one of those disciplines is something that I have learned about and invested time into understanding. And that’s exactly why – as a theologically conservative Seventh-Day Adventist – I now spend my time triangulating between classical music, gospel music and jazz.

Yeah…and I know that you’ve tried to say very little about that in church, but can you just summarise for me how that works in your spiritual life?

Gladly. As I’ve said elsewhere, I regard jazz as the greatest creative challenge in all of Western music, and because of that it is a monumentally spiritual challenge. Creativity is one of the ways in which we know that we are made in the image of God, so as divine gifts go, that one has a huge threshold of responsibility. And the sad truth is that of late I have returned to certain forms of secular jazz for no other reason than the fact that these musicians and this music has more integrity than nearly everything we do in church. No-one wants to change. We keep the status quo. But most of what I play is sacred jazz, and that is a phenomenal blessing.

So what about gospel music? Is that not creative?! Yikes. It can be, but the biggest issue with gospel is that it has become all about ‘celebration’ and weak paradigms of praise. And the weak ways that gospel singers and instrumentalists try to appropriate jazz is frankly appalling – but that’s ignorance, and it remains bliss. The harmonies are frequently trite, clichéd and conceptually surface-level – and that’s why secular people love gospel music – especially commercial gospel – because too often, it offers no true sustained spiritual challenge to an unbeliever.

WOW!

So the gospel I do is questioned by some inside and outside the church, because it’s not ‘American’ enough or ‘loose’ enough or ‘hearfelt’ enough. I love this music, but I hate what it has become for too many people. I do gospel music my way and leave others to do what they do. I believe that God is as much a God of the groove as He is the good of non-syncopated beats. The devil did NOT invent music and there is NO beat or rhythm that belongs to him alone. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d bring trance or trip-hop into church, but won’t be afraid of syncopation either. If I told you that there were studies that showed the power of drum therapy, you might be shocked – but no amount of serious empirical research in auditory perception that proved that syncopation could actually have a healing effect on the emotions at certain times would ever be enough for Christian Berdahl and his followers. Ivor Myers and Dwayne Lemon and lots and lots of others have also gone south on this matter, but they preach other things very well indeed, and I am determined to see the big picture and not get bent out of shape.

Sure! And classical music?

Well, what would you say if I told you that jazz was a classical form?! Don’t answer that – classical music is the greatest intellectual challenge in Western music. And it has wonderful abilities to heal in more ways than I could express. I love Bach, Handel, Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky and Messaien – but I can tell you that at certain moments when my faith is weak, I need Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin. And when I’m confused and nothing makes sense – jazz helps me put the pieces back together. And when I need to knit my mind together, classical music is the one. They ALL play a part in my ongoing sanity and spirituality.

I…I need to go away and think about all of that…

I understand. For a good Adventist brother, that’s just too much…

…I didn’t say that…

…true, my bad, sorry. What I meant is…

…I know what you meant. And I understand. I understand. And I get enough to totally agree with you that no-one who has made up their mind on this subject is going to let anyone change it easily. But are you going to continue to work in music and theology?!

You had better believe it. But as the SDA church in the UK has largely rejected what I would offer, this blog is now the main forum for my work in the theology of music and worship. And I’m planning a book!

Really?!

Really. By the end of 2016, it will be finished. Watch this space!

Wow, that is going to be one explosive read… You betcha. But you know the most important thing about all this?

Tell me.

In the end, the music will tell its own story. It will tell listeners what you believe, and if you believe. And so I am leaving these public controversies along to spend more time on becoming a better musician – a better Levite – and a better human being and a more faithful Christian. And as philosophy grows in my life, so does my vision of God. I can’t tell others how to read, think, live or play their instruments unless I have the express authority to do so. But I can conduct, compose and play to a God-honouring standard, and use syncopation and abstruse harmony to the glory of the Triune God, without whom I would have no mind, no heart, and no hands.

Amen and amen!

A personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists (and other Christians)

For those of you that clicked the link on the ADM Productions jazz page, thank you so much for coming through to this blog – your desire to understand where I am coming from is not taken for granted in any way.

For those of you who found this post by some other route – and to the regular subscribers of this blog – you are, as ever, warmly welcomed.

~

As I have stated elsewhere: jazz – as far as I am concerned – is the single greatest creative challenge in (Western) music.

If you genuinely understand and appreciate jazz, then you will know why this music matters. But if you don’t – and if you (also) happen to be from my church – then you most probably need to read this really rather carefully. And if you are curious for some other reason about my involvement in jazz and unique nature of what we do in jazz at ADM Productions, then do please read on!

Here’s a newsflash – jazz is in fact one of the most incredible mediums that we have found as human beings in the nexus of music itself. It lends itself to integration with so many non-Western music traditions, and it also lends itself to the expression of whatever ideology you believe. [For those interested, I was grilled seriously about my work in jazz on a televised interview, in which this very issue surfaces.]

Like many Seventh-Day Adventists, my parents warned me sternly away from jazz. It was the ‘devil’s music’ along with rock’n’roll, blues, reggae and the rest. But classical music?? This was the highest form of music – but somehow the problems of secular classical music were not as great as the problems with jazz. And we return to the issues of the previous paragraph; many people in my church really don’t seem to understand that it is the same deal in classical music. Mozart may have written some operas with some quite scandalous plots. But his psalm settings are incredible. Do Bible-believing Christians ignore those just because of the salacious opera scenes that he wrote? Hmm.

Handel also wrote some highly secular music – but what’s he best known for? That’s right, an incredible piece of sacred choral/orchestral music entitled Messiah…so the genre is indeed not as important in and of itself – it’s about what you make of the genre!

I only discovered this after I started playing jazz and realised that this music was the exact opposite of faith-denying. At 18, I began to play really seriously. At 19, I had become an early-career jazz professional. And the year I turned 20, I celebrated my birthday in New York, having flown out there specifically to spend part of the summer getting into the jazz scene. By the time I flew back I knew that this was what I wanted to do – to become a truly world-class jazz musician and be an Adventist witness to this community of musicians and to do more than merely entertain people (which is largely all that I ever saw taking place in our church gospel concerts. Occasionally, someone would sing or play in such a way that it really did become ‘ministry’ but this was exceedingly rare). I wanted to do more than ‘entertain.’ I wanted to communicate.

To get my head around that at 20 was one of the biggest journeys I have ever made and will ever make. And from that time, I have been both theologically-conservative Adventist and professional jazz musician.

~

So, to brass tacks. If you’re not a Christian believer in any way, you may very reasonably wonder why  I am trying to do something called ‘sacred jazz.’ Why bother? Either play jazz as jazz, or don’t bother, but why try to mix the two?

And if you are a Christian, you may be wondering the same thing, but worded differently with different emphases and from different angles…

So all parties will get the same answer. Why is jazz part of what happens at ADM Productions? Well, because I’m the ‘AD’ of ADM, and I know that God has given me an interest in, feeling for and desire to make music in three genres. Classical music is fantastic, but there are times when only gospel music will do. But at other times, I need something that is more cerebral than gospel, but not as scripted as classical music. I need to ‘be’ in that moment. And I need to think outside the boundaries of language.

It’s kind of ironic, because for someone who loves instrumental music as much as I do, I use a lot of words in the course of my life. But we all have times when it’s not about verbal language at all. As Goethe (no less) once observed, “music begins where words end.”

That is the literal truth, whatever you believe. And as someone with Christian faith, there are times when expressing and articulating aspects of my faith journey (and also serious reflecting on this journey) requires something other than language. The Bible talks about meditating – how do we do that? Is it not possible that one can use artistic mediums to reflect? And why would I only  choose to find a pre-composed piece of music – the outworking of someone else’s personal journey – when I could in fact play something that I myself have created in the moment that is the outworking of my own journey and true to that moment? In case you missed that (apologies to jazz musicians!), that is precisely  what true improvisers do!

Jazz facilitates a level and a type of musical profundity that simply does not exist in any other Western music genre. Many people still don’t know or understand that the major genius composers of times past were not just ‘composers’ in the way that we construct nowadays. They were ‘musicians’ in such a deep sense of the word – and many were consummate and prolific improvisers. The negative connotations imposed by neo-colonial black people on improvisation and most forms of non-scripted music are but one example of the cruelties of ignorance. And this ignorance is hurting the Church in more ways than many people have dared to even think about (which is one of the major reasons why I do ministry).

[Indeed, some even believe that if a musician does not read music, then they are not a real musician. What’s scary about this is that I personally have ONLY EVER heard black Christians say this. My word, we do class and caste better than others at times, we really do!]

But here’s a very interesting thing: badly-performed classical music is so ubiquitous it is beyond contempt. And as for badly-performed gospel music – just don’t get me started (plenty on that subject elsewhere on this blog). The church is an excellent place to find both.

But unlike those two genres, I would contend that jazz really only  works for any audience when it is played well. Properly. And I distinguish between “jazz/gospel” and “sacred jazz” because jazz/gospel is essentially gospel music – but sacred jazz is actually jazz – with a requisite amount of rhythmic/harmonic/melodic intensity and complexity to qualify as actual jazz – but the message is one of faith and hope and assurance – and in a very spiritual sense.

Nearly all the jazz musicians who work with me do not share my faith in any way, but they share a real commitment to a brand of music-making with far more integrity than many Christians (including musicians) will EVER comprehend. And I am delighted and honoured to have them as compadres  in music and that they have been willing to be part of my own faith journey in music.

There are some very big names in SDA ministry who are anti-drums, anti-contemporary music, and more – and while I had planned to cite some of these names, this will not help. Enough controversy has been aroused courtesy of my decision to take apart certain statements by one well-known Adventist who fits into this category. And it shows me that folks convinced against their will will remain of the same opinion still.

And so, as a jazz pianist, I’m fond of ‘quipping’ that I  don’t just play any old jazz stuff – I play ‘faith.’ And while it is true that this statement applies specifically to my work in ‘sacred jazz,’ it is in fact the case that whatever the material is – as long as the song/folksong/standard/original is genuinely compatible with Biblical Christianity, then the way I play it is going to exemplify who I am and what I believe. In truth, my secular jazz colleagues worked that out regarding my playing long before I did!

For all these reasons and more, my team and I have some big plans for sacred jazz at ADM Productions. There are a couple of major writing projects which I really want to finally get off the ground. It was no less a person than Gustav Mahler who said that “if a composer could say that he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Developing a new, gospel-inspired language of sacred jazz for big band (and more) that is spiritually and theologically truthful is going to be an even bigger challenge than conducting the St. Matthew Passion  – but there are certain things that transcend language, and composing this sort of jazz is in fact the work of a lifetime in and of itself!

In the context of life and ministry, it is an unalloyed privilege and pleasure to be able to engaging with fellow jazz musicians and audience members. This is totally about breaking beyond boundaries and barriers of style and concept  ‘playing faith’ – but without compromising who I am or what I believe. Sadly, as I write this post, I can see that even a bunch of youngsters playing standards from the Real Book in a jam session will usually find a greater level of musicianship integrity than that found in the types of jam session that take in church sanctuaries after services. There is more listening. More technical facility. More space (sometimes). More preparation mentally (frequently). And much stronger song forms. Of course, there are some jam sessions in which the medium of jazz music is seriously abused. That is the fault of the PLAYERS, not the music (and this of course applies to gospel music and other musical genres as well!).

And so this blog post actually caps a very serious historical moment in my life. Five years ago, when called to full-time ministry, I honestly thought that I may never, ever play jazz again. But the truth is that my ministry extends far beyond the boundaries of the church walls, and it requires me to be the best version of me. Jazz was more than the mainstay of Phase 1 of my professional career; it was something which God Himself facilitated to keep me sane and to express some deep things in me that I could not express in language. But as I survey a gospel music landscape where market forces drive musical and ‘ministry’ choices, which result in a spiritually impoverished gospel scene, and a classical music landscape where at the highest level, true Biblical Christian faith is extraordinarily hard to find, I realise that to be both composer and performer in ‘real time’ is a gift from God, and while improvisation is hardly exclusive to jazz, there is no other music form that forces the highest level of spontaneity in creativity quite like jazz, and I cannot wait to return to serious concert jazz performance – in 2015. I have something to say and words are not enough…

A new vision for the rest of my life in music

Last week, a huge door closed. [see this post for more details.]

And in the days that have passed which have served as the (entirely necessary) processing time, it has become very clear that this is indeed the way forward. It is not that I will never once work with members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK on anything musical from henceforth. I never said that and it could not be further from the truth. However, the standard of music making – and indeed, musical praise – in which I am involved cannot drop below a certain level and there is no way in which I will continue to be spiritually and emotionally blackmailed into facilitating levels of musical praise where the actual music-making is totally and inexcusably sub-standard.

If the musical praise is in fact genuinely musical, there is always a chance that the actual truth about God can be told. But it is impossible for an act of music ministry to be musically substandard and still be spiritual. Somehow, our church (and we are not alone) have now almost made a new spiritual gift (a type of ‘virtue’ for those who don’t know) out of what I will now call ‘anti-musicality’ and this is something that I will resist forcibly for as long as I have breath.

It has not been easy to express these things, as one has no real desire to talk about all the things that do not work in one’s church. But I have been trying to gloss over these failings for nearly twenty years, and that in and of itself has been damaging. The truth really does matter – even when it hurts – but better honest pain than dishonest coherence – because it is precisely this ‘dishonest coherence’ that is hurting our evangelistic witness as a church. I love my church and I am serious about people becoming part of our community. I do not believe because I get what I want. I do not believe because I am loved and respected. I believe because my own intellectual and spiritual convictions have led me to the conclusion that the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church are true. And all these sorts of ‘ecclesial’ problems are not going to be a good enough reason to leave for a church community (or any other) in which music is respected more honestly and taken much more seriously.

While in other Christian churches music can at times be much, much better, I have been involved in interdenominational musical activities for twenty years. I have been shocked to find that even in the matter of a gospel choir, secular people are often more keen to sing this music to a really high standard than church-goers of all stripes. So for those who think that I have the right religion but the wrong denomination, I do have news: I see all types of sacred music – from Palestrina to liturgical jazz to contemporary gospel music – being sung and played to a consistently higher standard by secular people than by Christians of all denominations – be they evangelical Anglican to ragingly intense Pentecostal as well as Roman Catholic. Seventh-Day Adventists have a huge amount of work to do, but we’re not alone on this one, folks.

I want to place on record my gratitude to those UK Adventist music ministers who have been willing to work with me to a real musical standard as well as a spiritual standard. It is not a big number, and each one of you has something to do for God in this world. Those of you who are still working with me, we’re only just getting started.

I also want to place on record my thanks all those who are not of my faith, but who have been part of my activities in sacred music-making for the entirety of my career to date – whatever the reasons for your saying ‘yes,’ it has been really important that we respect music as something bigger than all of us and that we have found – and continue to find – a place of true common ground in the process of making music together as honestly as possible.

In the last two months, I have spent a great deal of time with a certain book called The Path by Laurie Beth Jones. I would like to wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone and everyone. It has enabled certain pieces of my life to now begin falling into place with shattering force as I now continue to take the necessary difficult decisions to ensure that the reason for which I came into being actually does get fulfilled in my life. It is for both my benefit and others who would like to understand why I am as ferociously driven as I am that I now publish the following two statements.

What I thought was my mission statement for life and ministry came at the end of a period of fasting and prayer in early 2011. But now in July 2014, thanks to Ms Jones, I now have a much deeper  mission statement. With the help of other thinkers and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I can see that what I have now found with the help of Laurie Beth is in fact a vision statement. And she has also taught me that I also need a goal – which in turn written down.

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Personal Vision Statement:

My vision is to understand, promote and inspire true worship to a holy God.

~

Personal Mission Statement:

My mission is to share Christian faith and the (Seventh-Day) Adventist message to the highest standard of my ability using both words and music.

~

For the rest of 2014 I will be working out how the ‘goal’ side of this will work in real life and how I can express it clearly, simply and accurately in my first language of English. The practical applications of both my vision and mission need to be carefully tracked so that my decisions are all congruent with both vision and mission. But those huge decisions of the last week are all a consequence of recognising and accepting the two statements that you have just read, and realising that my goals have to be reconsidered in order to ensure that I stay on track with who I am, how I have been designed and who God Himself has called me to be.

May God be with you as you work out these things for your own life and ministry in Jesus’ Name.

Part 2: A devastating conclusion for contemporary music ministry in UK Adventism

In response to what has now become Part 1 on this subject, I was asked some searching questions by a friend, ministry colleague and brother in Christ. They were worthy of a serious response, so please see the dialogue below as follows.

Q: Are you aware of a time within UK Adventism, when the depth of musicianship you desire, has ever been a reality? If not, can you point to some Adventist locales that are successful; what do you think their reason is for success?

A: There is one outstanding example in my mind – in terms of what I have personally experienced for myself. The output of the London Adventist Chorale from 1994 to 2002 was, in a word, outstanding. But that was a time when they were rehearsing for 3 Sundays a month from 1-5:30pm, doing serious sectional rehearsals and then full choir (tutti) rehearsals. That was the only way a bunch of mostly non-music-reading singers were able to learn whole two-hour concert programmes from memory – in eight parts. It was a phenomenal achievement in any language and it remains one of the highlights of my life (for two years I was part of that).

There were some others – and one also belongs to Ken Burton. In 1994 the Croydon Gospel Choir hosted a concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and I can remember some of the music that was sung and played to this day. It was hard to believe that one local church could work to that standard, and then when Ken played a solo piano version of When Peace Like a River – and received an entirely justified standing ovation – I just became increasingly determined to emulate him.

Apart from that, other groups have come close to excellence. Mahlon Rhamie directed a choir called New Hope that did some wonderful things in terms of contemporary gospel music from c. 1997-2002, and for a period of time in the last decade another gentleman called Clive Shepherd was Music Director for the London Youth Federation and for a few years they sang really well.

No instrumental groups have come close to the standard of excellence I would ideally desire. A tiny number of classical ensembles are now doing a few things, but there is a huge amount of work to do there. The gospel bands have really improved over the years, and if one of two of them keep going they will eventually become excellent. But at their best, the London Adventist Chorale were actually world-class, and that is a big, big thing. We have a handful of individual instrumentalists who have achieved real excellence on their own terms. For the sake of political harmony I will not cite any of those, but they know who they are.

Outside of the UK, there is much more to celebrate in the USA and also Europe. And even in the Philippines, where one of our Adventist Universities produced a choir that won a very big award at a recent Eisteddfod in Llangollen, and they worked hard for that. In the USA, it is the departments of music at our big universities who produce very strong choral ensembles – the chamber choir of La Sierra have sung to an outstanding standard at times. The Andrews University Singers do very good work, as do the choral groups of Southern University. I have also heard one or two choirs from Adventist universities in Latin Americe which were not mind-blowing, but they were light-years away from almost everything we do here in the UK. But although their stylistic range is more limited than many appear to accept, on the basis of my own ears and my own experience (and I have not heard everything in the entire Adventist world), the most outstanding ensemble in global Adventism right now is at Oakwood University. Jason Max Ferdinand is a very, very well-trained conductor, and his blend of maverick intuition and well-trained musicianship is perfectly suited to the Aeolians. At their best, they do achieve a superlative standard, but they cannot always reach that. I have not heard a single instrumental ensemble that plays as well that the Aeolians sing from any of our universities. And if there is a better choral ensemble in the world church, I cannot wait to hear them for myself!

On the African continent, it seems that in some areas the ‘traditional’ choral singing tradition is being kept alive and also being nurtured and developed by Adventists. In 2010 I was in Lagos, Nigeria, teaching for the Royal School of Church Music (which was being inaugurated in Nigeria) and in that time I was exposed to all sorts of different church music contexts from Pentecostal to classical. But I had to wait until Sabbath to hear ‘traditional’ and sure enough, on Sabbath in the Adventist church there was a 60/70 strong choir in four parts, resplendent in purple from head to toe, singing ‘traditional’ African Christian sacred music, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Seems that in Nigeria the Adventists are keeping that flame burning…

Unfortunately, many of the most outstanding classical music performers from Europe in Adventism are much more theologically liberal than would be ideal, but these are the hazards of life. And on the Continent, there are some outstanding musicians. The Adventist Church also has one legendary conductor – the two-time Grammy Award winner Herbert Blomstedt – who is simply an amazing musician and someone who I want to emulate as far as possible artistically whilst being true to who I am. But Blomstedt is not in the church conferences trying to inspire people to be Levites – he is working with world-class orchestras and living out his calling in that arena. I used to be very wary of some of what he was doing, but as I have grown as a conductor, I have had to change my perspective on certain things that he does. Without going into detail, let us say that I don’t judge him anymore in the way that I did, and now I watch what he has done as I find my own way through the classical music world.

The reason why all these other musical achievements even exist is very simple – those involved had a very, very high regard for music and a genuine willingness to diligently apply themselves to their craft. That is also true for all the UK examples I have cited. But the vast majority of UK Adventist musicians have stopped trying, and still received high praise from congregations. As such, excellence is now impossible for most.

Q: Do you believe the current state of musical affairs, is retarding renewal and hampering effective witness in the UK?

A: Absolutely. This has been my contention for at least ten years when I began to try and get involved with actual music ministry in Adventist church settings. I could see the real problems with the lack of true spiritual integrity in the professional gospel world and how this was impacting the church itself – including my own church (the Adventist church). So I tried to do something about it. In 2004 I had a praise team and band that achieved some really wonderful things, but there were maggots at the core of certain people’s spiritual lives and that fell apart from the inside out. In 2007/8 there was another group that also found the right Levitical standard, and my own spiritual life changed working with them – but they were so ferociously criticised by their own Adventist peers that this also crashed and burned.

When non-Adventists come to our churches, they (often) see experimental praise teams chucking together setlists by the piano on the morning, blagging harmonies, clashing with keyboard players who often have given precious little thought to how their keyboard harmony relates to what the singers are trying to do. Sometimes they see two keyboard players and bass all clashing together beautifully, and not really supporting the singing – but they still say that it is really good. And people with ears wonder how anyone can say that this is good. Non-Adventists also see that in our concerts, the least well-prepared musical items also get more praise than those that are really well-drilled.

They will also see that we only sing what we know and what we like. It’s not about ‘singing a new song unto the Lord, all the earth.’ It is about singing what gives us the ‘feel-good factor’ and to hell with anyone else (yes, I did just say that in a serious blog post, because that is exactly what I have experienced from some Adventist music-makers).

This makes a total mockery of ‘music ministry’ because it is usually neither spiritual enough to be actual ministry nor musical enough to be music. Our special items are often also weak and underpowered and no-one is motivated enough to really work hard, because they know that they will still get a rousing ‘Amen’ no matter what. This has led to the deadly reality where singers and instrumentalists work harder to prepare songs for WEDDINGS just because they don’t want to mess up the day for the bride and groom. I have myself rehearsed singers and musicians who were more keen to work on the music for weddings than for church services, and this has become intolerable.

What we really think of God is not necessarily revealed through the clothes we wear. That’s cultural and social. Or the food we eat (also cultural and social). Or our sermons (which can also be performances based on socio-cultural values). It comes out in how we speak to people on a one-to-one basis, and how we sing about God. If the song service is called ‘praise and worship’ and we talk all the way through it – or the pastors watch their congregations instead of joining in the praise themselves – this is all hurting our witness to people who are not all that interested in our clever doctrinal arguments as prima facie reasoning for joining this church. They want to see how being in our worshipping communities make a difference. And our general failures to adhere to the ethics of music itself have a greater impact on people’s willingness to accept the truth that we teach than many of our church members have understood.

I mentioned my Lagos experience earlier and it is time to make a point that will not fill me with joy. During my time in Lagos, I attended and worked with several denominational churches. Guess which one – despite the outstanding choir – had the least fervent congregational singing and was the least friendly and genuinely welcoming?

That’s right. The Adventist church.

This leads me to a final, devastating two-tag point.

Many of our church members have not said ‘yes’ to God. They have said ‘yes’ to religion. And this includes many music ministers, who are happier living an Adventist lifestyle than going through the agonising soul-searching that is the necessary provenance of all ministers. So it is the IDEA of God that they have accepted, as opposed to the reality. God has been re-made in our own image and we worship that.

Which begs the serious question: if they actually were to come face to face with the reality of God Himself, would they then actually say ‘yes?’ Or are music ministers building golden calves as they pander to the whims of the congregations, and then joining in the worship of those same golden calves that they have built?

All of this is why the world church has witnessed a 43% loss in our baptised members since 2000. Our worship services – along with our discipleship systems – are ineffective to the point of being dead in the water, never mind not ‘being fit for purpose.’ And that’s why Randy Skeete gets away with his little digs against music, and Mark Finley is negative about the role of music in evangelism…

Part 1: A devastating conclusion for contemporary music ministry in UK Adventism

When the author of Ecclesiastes talked about the fact that much knowledge brings much grief (1:18), he was not talking about mere information (or data). He was talking about knowledge in the truest sense of the word – that of actual understanding.

The word ‘knowledge’ has become weak and underpowered. That’s why I have made this point in this way. But if you do actually look at the text for yourself, you will note that the author also says that with much wisdom comes much sorrow.

Now, given that the author of Ecclesiastes is also the author of Proverbs, then how come in Proverbs he personifies wisdom as being someone who cries in the streets, waiting to be pursued – the idea being that we really need to pursue wisdom as something necessary – whilst wearily declaring in Ecclesiastes that much wisdom brings much sorrow?

The contention of the blog post rests on the premise that if you are truly serving in ministry in any capacity, then you will eventually come face-to-face with this paradox for yourself. And if you are a true minister, then your heart IS GOING TO BE BROKEN at some point.

No-one has more power to break a person’s heart than someone close to them. And in church communities, this also applies. Jesus ended up marvelling at the faith of those outside the chosen people of God. He wept over the fact that He could not save His own, because they would not receive Him. But He did not allow them to determine who He was and how He was to live. They were not qualified to determine His ministry calling, and He found the necessary strength to love everyone without ever compromising the highest ideals of His own identity.

Today, I am waking up to the fact that God has taken a dream away from me – and one which I never really knew how much I cared about until I have had to face the fact that it is not what I have been called to do. The thing is: while God does actually thwart us in certain direct and explicit ways at times, on other occasions He simply facilitates the true realities and consequences of certain of our decisions in order for us to see for ourselves why what we thought was right and correct and the way forward is simply not how things were and are meant to turn out for us. This is especially true in every situation in which we have looked at what other people are doing in life and ministry and tried to model our own lives along what we see that we admire and that makes sense, given the context of our own lives and gifts.

I am a Seventh-Day Adventist living and working and practising my faith in the UK, and for many years I have dreamed of having the privilege of directing an Adventist choral group of my own that would work to a very high standard. I even dreamed of taking this group on mission trips where we would be heavily involved in various forms of evangelism by day, and we would sing by night (of course there was going to be some crossover, but that was the general idea and trajectory). Years have passed, and this dream is not only very far from being fulfilled, it has positively crashed and burnt. And as I now survey my music ministry output over the last decade, some patterns have emerged which, upon ruthless analysis, now mean that I have enough evidence to be sure of what I am saying in this blog post. These patterns could only be seen in hindsight – but now they are clear and indisputable.

British Adventism is hardly unique in the fact of its’ having great strengths and profound weaknesses. But the nature of both has meant that my aspirations are going to be extremely difficult to reach. I refer to British Adventism as ‘UK Blackventism’ because it remains the unfortunate truth that although there is nothing whatsoever in our ‘constitutional’ identity as a Bible-believing movement that stipulates this in any way, here in the UK the Seventh-Day Adventist Church has – to all extents and purposes – become a ‘black majority church’ even though we have nothing to do with the actual ‘Black Majority Church movement. If you are not black, you are both an ‘ethnic minority’ and an ‘endangered species’ in UK Adventism.

So ‘black music’ forms tend to be dominant in UK Adventist churches. However, there are other cultural communities who have a real interest in music, such as the growing number of Filipinos who have tended to be organised and focussed on various Western music forms – but also on their own terms (which are not necessarily those of the music itself). And there are also small conclaves of Anglo-European Adventists who have their own musical commitments and ideals.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases – regardless of where one is on the cultural/racial continuum, or on the musical aesthetic continuum – one truth is all-pervasive, namely: the fact that the word ‘good’ (and all related synonyms and superlatives) is (are) frequently used to describe musical performative actions that do not merit any such positive epithets. The most elementary of musicianship failings are rampant, and at times I wonder how it is possible that our congregations can continue to support music-makers who offer nothing spiritually or musically when they get up to perform – because the defensiveness of both congregations and music-makers themselves that is exhibited when one points out that what has been played and sung has failed to be coherently musical on any level is in fact frightening. It makes it impossible to know if and how this will ever change, because now the music-makers have become drunk on the approbation of the church members, and it is now more important to them that they hear words that tell them how good they are – as opposed to being motivated by actually being good.

It is like a person who would rather buy a certificate that says that they have a degree and then accept the plaudits that come from having such a degree instead of making the sacrifices to actually earn one honestly.

~

When the Son of God came to the earth and the time came for Him to begin His public ministry, he looked for twelve men who would say ‘yes.’ And they were not the most highly esteemed or highly vaunted of guys. They were ordinary. But in God, they did extraordinary things. But they had to say ‘yes’ to Jesus first.

In order for my dream to work, enough music ministers have to say ‘yes’ to God first before they can say ‘yes’ to any other character (of the human variety) who calls them to go on a mission. But if the praise of men matters more than the praise of God, then one has not said ‘yes’ to God (John 12:43). And this is where things get really intense. Get ready for what’s coming, those of you who have made it this far.

If you have settled for praise of the church members – too many of whom have reduced God to being a mere object of knowledge – then you have also reduced God to being less than who He really is.

If you make God less than He really is, then all sorts of other things will also be reduced by definition. This means that music – which is the work of God Himself, because it comes from no other source – is also going to be reduced. And for many people in churches, music is less than they are. They are bigger than music; they control it, they bend and manipulate it to their will.

So musical values – as expressed in that crucial word ‘musicianship’ are non-existent for such people – because they set the standard for music itself!

~

But music is like – but not the same as – language. Language is something that we have found ourselves with as human beings, but we have no power to give ourselves life. We can take the life of another more easily than we can ever give life to another – and even that God has to permit. We cannot ensure that if we try to produce a new human being through sexual reproduction, that this will definitely happen. We have not been given that authority over life. We do not have that power.

We can invent new language frameworks, but we are not the authors of the actual capacity for language itself – and language is impossible without cognition. But neuroscience at least has the brain to work with. Psychology has the mind, and as no-one has ever seen a mind in any tangible form, we are now fully in the realm of the speculative here as far as strict empiricism is concerned. And yet, more people believe in the existence of mind itself than in the existence of God Himself.

All these things are bigger than us, which in turn means that a phenomenon like music is also bigger than any human being. We discovered it; we did not invent it. But if the actual content of our thinking means that we are mentally on-it enough to know that music cannot be smaller than us, but we effectively operate as if it is smaller than us, then we are deceived by our own weak constructions whilst actually daring to think that our music brings glory to a holy God!

Satan does not even have to send some demons to send deceptive thoughts into our psyches. We’re capable of sending ourselves down the road to spiritual ruin all by ourselves. So when his demons do turn up, they finish the job. And only divine intervention can change that.

~

I know the extent of what God has done for me, and I cannot accept the level of musical praise that so many Adventists have settled for. My recent efforts to try and put an all-Adventist group together have ended in failure. My recent efforts to try and work with all-Christian ensembles (i.e. interdenominational ensembles) have also failed. Others are doing this kind of thing, but it has not worked for me and God knows why. But if I have been called to share faith in music and express faith in music to the highest standard of my ability, then I must now find the best musicians and singers that I can find who are willing to work with me and give God some musical praise that is honestly musical. Whatever their own backgrounds, if they are willing, then we ride together. As leaders, we can only work with those who say ‘yes.’ And if the depth of a secular person’s ‘yes’ to (sacred) music is exponentially greater than the depth of a Christian’s (Adventists included) ‘yes’ to God, then I am taking the secular person every single time from this day forward.

Jesus’ own people broke His heart. Even His own disciples broke His heart. But He did not let them stop His quest to fulfil his destiny. I have allowed others to do this to me, and today marks a new era in my life. I still hope to have a real opportunity to make some sort of serious impact on the thinking of Seventh-Day Adventist music ministers. And I am sure that God will open one or two doors in the future. But my daily standard of music-making needs to go up 300% with immediate effect and then keep going onwards and upwards with the level of consistency that is so necessary for true artistic and spiritual excellence.

So whoever you are and wherever you come from, I will see you at the heavy level if that is where you have been called to be. Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Ellington, Coltrane, Kirk, Donnie and Fred – we’re just getting started…

 

 

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

Okay, okay, so before you say anything, I am holding my hands up and apologising for the stupendous length of time that has elapsed since our last conversation…

Theomusicologist!!!!

Okay, I really want to know if there is a specific reason why you disappeared on our conversation – is there?

What a good question…yes, there is, as it happens. Great, I’m listening! Okay it’s like this: have you seen how many people in my church – the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – conduct their debates on music? Er…yes, I can’t say I’m unaware. You’ve got loads of people in your church who have their opinions and they are all experts. Every last one. University professors. Grammy Award winners. No-one is telling them ANYTHING. As it happens, we’ve got the same thing going on in my church too!

What a world, huh?! Say that again, brother! But look, get to the point, will you?! Okay okay, sorry! So this is it: I kind of went through a stage where I really questioned the very point of this whole public conversation. I enjoy talking with you as you know, but I was not sure that there was any point in continuing on this particular subject. And a big part of the reason why is that I reached a level of total frustration with people in my church. It seems as if the overwhelming majority of people in my sphere of existence who really and truly have an issue with syncopation are members of my church. This does not mean that there are no other people from other denominations who have issues with syncopation – but not to the same extent that appears to be the case in my church due to certain very high-profile speakers who have spoken out against it. Sure, with Christian Berdahl being a particularly obvious example right now… Uh-huh. But for so many other people, how it could be the case that we spend this long talking about syncopation is just crazy. And as many people will not even manage to stay in the conversation with us long enough to really get why this whole anti-syncopation thing is a very big problem, I had felt that if – by and large – the only people who need persuading on this matter are SDAs whose views are already fixed, then I can write that off as a complete waste of time. But as it is, I can see that I need to see this one through with you and anyone else who makes it with us. People have been encouraging – and the levels of sincerity and ignorance are just the kind of thing that get us ministry-types going – so I’m back!

Okay, thanks for sharing that. I’m glad, because I am genuinely interested in your views on this subject; as you say, it’s about more than just this one issue.

Absolutely. And I fear that this will be a shorter conversational installment, but there is a very important thing that I knew I needed to share with you asap. Sounds serious! It is. It really is.

You know that it is a sore spot with me that much of my thought-life has been better shared with non-Adventists than Adventists. But you also know that I’m not about to leave my church. Christian Berdahl’s specific statements have brought out the fire-breathing dragon in me, and I can see that this very systematic way that I have been looking to take apart his whole thesis on this has been pretty heavy-handed.

Hmm. I’ve not thought that – but it is true that I have gotten used to you over more years than we both care to think about. I know you. I know your style. We can joke about it, even. But as I think about it, sure, some of our mutual friends still find you intimidating, even when you say nothing and smile and just be really friendly. They sense that you’re holding back. We’ve managed to get along from the get-go and that’s ’cause we were both committed to that. Um, you mean present tense, yeah? Duh. Obviously that is STILL the case, or we’d not be having this conversation, you crazy, over-analysing gimp! Okay, okay, sorry! Accepted. So as I was saying before someone interrupted me…seriously now, has someone been talking to you about all this and how it comes across?

This is why we’re friends…yes indeed. Okay Theomusicologist. Well, I do make allowances for you that I don’t make for everybody. I see what you’re saying. And I know a bit about where you are coming from. Christian Berdahl may have made some huge academic howitzers but he is still a member of your church and you are not partisan in these matters – you work on the principle, regardless of the affiliations of the person in your gunsights (to use one of your expressions!) That’s one reason why I respect you as I do. But you now think that by slating him in this way it does not help the cause of your church?

Couldn’t put it better myself. I’ve basically laid into his statement and the thinking around it like he is a serious bad guy. I have to hold my hands up and say that as a ministry practitioner, I think I would rather have taken a kinder approach to pointing out the errors in his thought. I’ve been very sincere and very focussed and tried to spread it all out and not just bash him hard. But I believe that I can be gentler in this critique, and I want for my whole approach to just be a bit gentler when we pick this up next. I’m beginning to realise that my forensic critique of all manner of things makes the process of being around me more intense than may be ideal (at times!).

Theomusicologist, I am with you all the way. I’ve watched you grow over the years from the firebrand-in-your-face intellectual combatant who has verbally beaten up anyone in your way to a guy who wants to do good for God in whom you believe with the gifts He has given you. I know you. Not everyone knows you. And yeah, I am glad I’m not you, because the more I learn and grow, the more I see how big ministry is – for all of us. You’ve got a tough, tough job, but we serve an amazing God. He’s got you and He’s got this. Okay, so you’ll let me know when next, okay?

Deal. And thank you.

What are friends for? I’ll see you later. Get some sleep!