Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (Pt. 2)

I want to “extend and revise my remarks” regarding Andrew Root’s challenging work, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. For my initial response, see the previous review Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

I suggested at the beginning of that review that, as I was reading this work, I could not help but feel like I had been there before, I guess sort of a deja vu moment. More than once after digesting some of Root’s conclusions, I thought, “Reading this book is like returning to a place I have never been before.” Then something hit me – I had been somewhere close before, but not exactly in the same place. Let me explain.

Many years ago three professors within the family of the Churches of Christ created a minor firestorm with the publication of a deceptively short book, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, 2nd ed. 1991, 107 pages). While so much of the book needs to be reviewed here, just a couple of quotations will suffice:

We see the church floundering between two equally disastrous paths. On the one hand are those who advocate a rationalistic orthodoxy which arrogantly imposes its own limited scheme upon the Bible and places human restrictions upon God. On the other hand are those who are increasingly attracted by a generic Protestant pietism – sprinkled generously with therapeutic terminology – which eagerly caters to the shifting whims of the surrounding society. We have little sympathy with either of these secularizing options. We plead for a return to our historic roots in the central message of the Bible. (p. x)

We seek to reaffirm the great biblical truth that authentic Christianity stems from faith in God, not self; from worship of God, not self; from reliance on God’s power, not on the power of self; and from living out Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33) (p. 3)

The secular church’s adaptation to modernity, and particularly its wholesale adoption of the utility principle, leads directly to fundamental theological problems. The most far-reaching of these is a loss of the sense of transcendence. (p. 17)

When Christians forget who they are and who they are called to be, no amount of technique or programming will restore lost integrity. The church does not simply need more experts in communication, counseling, or church growth. It does not need more leaders who are clever and successful. But it desperately needs more leaders who are wise and faithful to the crucified one. (p. 22)

I really could go on for quite some time, but these themes are precisely what Root analyzes in Faith Formation. In going back to Worldly Church, I am struck by the phrases, “therapeutic terminology,” “secularizing options,” “authentic Christianity,” “transcendence,” and “faithful to the crucified one.” You do not even have to be a careful reader of Root’s work to hear those concerns being raised again and again. Now, I grant you that the audience to whom Allen, Hughes and Weed wrote is much more narrowly defined than the audience to whom Root addresses, but I just cannot get past the similarity in themes, and in the underlying similarity in the solution(s) they present.

There are differences in the two works, to be sure. For one thing, Allen, Hughes and Weed are primarily historical theologians, and, from my perspective anyway, Root is a philosophical theologian. What I mean is that, while Allen, Hughes and Weed reference some non-theological works, they do not attempt to locate the problem of “modernity” in anything close to the precision that Root is able to do. Root provides in his first 6 chapters the equivalent of a semester of university studies in a survey of the philosophical underpinnings of modern thought. (Aside here – the footnotes Root incorporates are prodigious, and provide an additional wealth of material and thoughts to consider, in addition to his main line of argumentation). The two works converge at a central point, however – the cross of Christ, and, I might add as a second point of convergence, the transcendence of God.

C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes followed The Worldly Church with a number of other works, each fleshing out in some greater degree a specific emphasis that they considered to be critical for the Churches of Christ. Allen called for the church to return to a cruciform nature. Hughes, for his part, called on the church to return to its apocalyptic heritage – as viewed primarily in the writings of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb. (Allen also shares in this call to an apocalyptic worldview). Andrew Root has studied and written about the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his own way, offered an apocalyptic vision of what the church is called to be (although, perhaps, not in the same terminology that Stone or Lipscomb would use).

So, in what can only be described as a very powerful, but in some ways very discomforting way, so many threads of my Christian journey have met in a mighty confluence of parallel themes. Going back 200 years to Stone, about 125 years to Lipscomb, about 75 years to Bonhoeffer, and now to my contemporaries Allen, Hughes, Weed – and now Root – I keep hearing the same voices, the same concerns, the same “prophetic” response. The church is caught – in fact always seems to be caught – in a vortex of secularizing powers that batter from without and corrupt from within. The answer today, which appears to have been the answer for Stone and for Lipscomb and for Bonhoeffer, is not more adept analyzing of the contemporary world so that the church can copy what is successful, but a total and unrelenting return to the basics of discipleship in Christ. Stone, Lipscomb, and Bonhoeffer might have expressed it differently, but the core concept is what Root identifies as an emphasis on biblical faith.

I have much more to say about Root’s book – it has utterly captivated my imagination. But I just had to unload this particular observation first. I apologize if it has been far too personal, but maybe will help explain some later remarks I make about Andrew Root’s powerful study.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

Reading Report – 2018

Packing up 2018 and getting ready for 2019 –

This past year turned out to be quite a journey for the ol’ Freightdawg. The Smith family moved back to Colorado (yea!) but virtually simultaneously we discovered that my wife’s cancer returned (major yuck!). So, amidst all the relocating and multiple extended trips for therapy, I have not had the kind of time for reading that I usually do. So, for 2018 that meant a total of 5,672 pages of books read, a huge drop-off from my typical year.

But, on the other hand, that limited number of books read (a total of 17) allowed me to get a better picture of the kinds of books I am typically reading. 2018 was interesting – fully a quarter of the books I read were related in some form or fashion to the book of Revelation (two commentaries and two books related to apocalyptic literature). Another quarter of my reading was related to spirituality and spiritual disciplines. You would think I would be better at maintaining my spiritual life, but, you would be wrong.

In the “no surprise here” category, three books on my completed list related to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last year I completed the entire 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition), so in 2018 I only read books related to Bonhoeffer.

The other books I read in 2018 were a hodgepodge of academic type books. I very rarely ever read fiction (some would say that is a huge omission, but I have a hard enough time buying good non-fiction books. I don’t know how to begin to find good fiction books).

Maybe I should add that a huge accomplishment I completed in 2018 was to take my Revised Standard Version, my New Revised Standard Version, and my English Standard Version copies of the Bible and begin marking them in various colors to help me track various themes and critical texts. That took quite a bit of time, but I learned some interesting things about translation issues even within one single family of translations (the three translations are really closely related). I may go through another translation or two with the same process. In 2019 that would be the NKJV and, if I add another one, would be the Common English Bible.

Already on tap for 2019 are three books I did not get to in 2018, and if all goes according to plan I will be able to provide reviews of those books in the coming months.

If any of my readers have suggestions for good theological books, please pass them along to me. I have the strange belief that if I am not learning something, then I am going backwards. I do not like going backwards! If any of my suggestions prove to be beneficial to you, let me know that as well. It would be nice to know that I have helped a fellow traveler out along the way.

Let us purpose to ascend higher by climbing lower in 2019!

Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans)

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism, C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic Books, 2018), 585 pages.

Not too very far in my past I was blessed with the opportunity to be an instructor at the university level (personal rant here – a Professor is one who has attained a level of tenure and is a title bestowed by his or her peers. An instructor is one who instructs. I was an instructor, not a professor!!) One course that I was assigned was the subject of Philosophy of Religion. I have always been quasi-interested in the field of philosophy, and this course whetted my appetite to understand the intersection of philosophy and religion as no other assignment might have done. Alas, I was utterly adrift as to what to use as a text, and the text that was suggested to me was an anthology of writings, not an explanation of the topic of Philosophy of Religion. The first time I taught the course was an absolute disaster (as far as I was concerned, and I apologize profoundly to my students who were subjected to my ignorance!). The second time revealed some improvement, but not much. What I needed was a brief, yet as thorough as possible, treatment of the major strands of the field of philosophy. What I needed, in brief, was this book – sadly not published until long after my instructorship days were concluded.

In many respects, C. Stephen Evans has pulled off what I consider to be a minor miracle. He summarizes the vast ocean of material in the field of philosophy, and manages to do in a relatively brief (if 585 pages can be called brief) amount of space. In my estimation he also does this in a very readable and understandable manner – something that is critical for my decidedly less-than-prodigious ability to understand philosophical concepts. In other words – Evans wrote in a way that I can understand him. That, my friends, is truly a five star, two thumbs up recommendation for this book.

The book is arranged with 24 chapters, each chapter focusing on one (or sometimes two or three) major characters/writers in the field of philosophy (Socrates left no writings of which we are aware). All the “biggies” are discussed – Socrates, Plato and thus and such until he concludes with Friedrich Nietzsche. The outline is basically chronological, although he does break at one point to cover one time period from two different angles – European (Continental) and British. Each chapter discusses how the particular philosopher under discussion accepts or rejects previous philosophical movements, and then goes on to provide a brief explanation of that philosopher’s contribution to the field of philosophy.

(By the way, if you are wondering, his explanation of why he stops with Nietzsche is brilliant! I was wondering why he did so, and it is because he does not feel that it is possible to evaluate which of the 20th century philosophers will be critical enough to the future of philosophy to effectively evaluate them. Any evaluation, he believes, is for a future volume, one that I personally hope he writes. But, he does not want to view 20th century philosophers from the vantage point of “history” quite yet.)

There are, to be sure, some drawbacks to the author’s methodology. First, it is truly impossible to summarize the philosophy of Socrates, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, or Marx in 25-30 pages. Yet, given this limitation, Evans does a remarkable job of maintaining his “meta narrative” (to borrow a philosophical term) throughout the book. Second, (and this is a criticism I have of virtually every “summary” type book regarding philosophy) – the authors of such summary style books are so educated, so well versed in their topic, that they can (and do) understand their characters in a manner deeper than they are able to summarize. Thus, they may write what they think is an acceptable summary of the thinking of Leibniz, but in a subsequent chapter they refer to an obscure (or not fully developed) aspect of Leibniz’ philosophy as if the reader fully understood Leibniz, and especially in my case, I don’t fully understand Leibniz’ philosophy. However, I must quickly add that this is a minor quibble, and in no way is meant to be a negative criticism of the value of this book. It simply is a consequence of what the author attempted to accomplish – provide a summary of a character’s philosophy and relate it to later philosophers’ writings.

Among all the positive attributes of this book that I could mention, perhaps the one that stands out to me right now is the fact that Evans writes from the position of a Christian philosopher, and he relates the contributions of each major character in terms of Christian thought. His favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard, and his exuberance concerning Kierkegaard, and his explanation of Kierkegaard’s methodology, has kindled a real desire in me to read more of Kierkegaard’s writings (I only own one of Kierkegaard’s books). I offer just one snippet of Evan’s concluding chapter to illustrate his perspective:

The reason religion cannot be completely divorced from philosophy is that philosophy is done by human beings, and human beings are incorrigibly religious . . . If Christianity is true, then humans were made in God’s image, and their intended destiny is to have a relationship with God. If humans are deeply religious by nature, it is hard to see how philosophy can be sharply segregated from religion, or why it should be. (p. 577)

Now, to be sure, Evans view of Christianity differs from mine. He will make dogmatic statements that I do not necessarily agree with (he repeatedly refers to “original sin” as a universally held Christian belief, something that I do not ascribe to). But – show me a book in which I agree with everything the author says, and I will point out that book is one that I wrote.

As a deeply personal aside here, one of the real joys that I discovered in this book is that it helped me understand more of the background to one of my favorite theologians – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and he never references Bonhoeffer once (boo!). Bonhoeffer’s two academic dissertations were written in response to a number of the philosophers discussed by Evans – Kant, Fichte, Husserl, and to a degree, Heidegger. What slowly dawned on me as I read these chapters is that in addition to being a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a profound philosopher. Maybe that one reason I find Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so valuable even almost 75 years after his death. Statements like, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who are obedient can believe” are not only deeply theological, they are profoundly philosophical. Bonhoeffer was doing (albeit without consciously attempting to) what Evans described as what Kierkegaard was trying to do – speak to his culture in a way that they could hear the message of Jesus without being beat over the head with it. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were both attacking what they believed to be a dead church – so it is not surprising that their methods might have been so similar!!!  Maybe not, I’m not that much of a Bonhoeffer scholar, and he was clearly writing as a Christian scholar and pastor. But, the parallels between Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophy became crystal clear to me through the pages of Evans’ book.

If you are interested in philosophy, especially if you do not consider yourself a professional philosopher and if many of the major philosophers are difficult to understand, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The cumulative length of the book is prodigious (the afore mentioned 585 pages), but the chapters themselves are 25-30 pages on average, and, once again, Evans writes to non-specialists. This is a very accessible book for philosophical neophytes like me.

Buy this book, brew yourself a big pot of tea (or coffee if you prefer) and give yourself a real treat. You will not regret investing in yourself – and hopefully grasping a little greater understanding of yourself and your world.

Middle Isaiah (II)

Yesterday I started a series of thoughts taken from the middle section of Isaiah. Today I want to continue those thoughts with what I have come to see as a staggering series of statements made by God, conveyed by Isaiah, that convince me that the Israelites had forgotten who God was. It seems unthinkable – until you stop and consider the current state of Christianity today. Who is God? Is he some puppet that can be controlled by magic-like incantations? Is he the tribal god of some nation, or nations, who in warrior like temperament goes about destroying other nations? Is he some mythological creation of man’s imagination who simply serves as a foil for all of our weaknesses and failures?

This is not a complete list – I am certainly not going to claim infallibility here – but stop and read these passages from middle Isaiah and see if you do not catch on to a common theme:

  • 41:9-10, 13
  • 42:6, 8-9
  • 43:3, 11, 13, 15, 18-19, 25
  • 44:6, 8, 24
  • 45:3, 5-8, 18-19, 21-22
  • 46:4, 9, 11
  • 47:4
  • 48:9, 11-12, 17
  • 49:26
  • 51:12, 15
  • 52:6

As I said yesterday, I am not technically nor linguistically gifted enough to make any definitive statements about the book of Isaiah – but it is striking to me how these statements are clustered together in this middle section of the book. I am convinced it is not accidental – the book is far too carefully constructed for this kind of emphasis to be accidental.

What I can (at least reservedly) say is that this emphasis on the being and nature of God is a critical one for the church to learn again today. Yesterday I wrote of the insanity (in my opinion) of us as Americans to repeatedly put our faith and trust into failed and failing human beings, and then to complain bitterly that our Christian principles are being rejected.

What should we expect? That somehow once a person is elected to congress that they will suddenly become a Christian? Or even more preposterous – that a person who identifies as a Christian is somehow going to change the cess pool that currently describes the situation in Washington D.C.? A whole barrel full of rotten apples does not change just because you put a good apple in the barrel. The good apple sours – it is the nature of apples . . . and of human nature.

Isaiah was speaking to and writing to a nation who had forgotten who and what their God was. They knew of him as a talisman – a good luck charm that was good to have around if things got kind of sticky. But, their real faith, their real trust, was in the strength of men – and in the specific situation that was identified yesterday – the strength of the Egyptian army. God told the Israelites, “Go ahead, trust in Pharaoh, see how far that gets you!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the mid 20th century, said the same thing had happened to his German nation and church. God was just a “God of the gaps” for them. Trust in the army, trust in your genetic heritage, trust in blood and soil – and if things get too far out of hand, trust in God.

Sound familiar?

Many preachers are worried about the “new atheism” and the attacks on Christianity from the outside. I really do not fear that much from atheists – atheists have been attacking the church for 2,000 years and have not succeeded in harming it to any great extent. No, the greatest threat to the Lord’s church today comes from within. It comes from people who do not know, and who do not care to know, who and what God truly is. That is an attack that is truly serious.

And that is why it is so critical for the Lord’s church today to read and study the prophets, not just middle Isaiah. But, if you do need a place to start, middle Isaiah is a really, really good place!

May God bless his church with a rekindling of a desire to know Him, and to put our hope and faith in Him and in Him alone!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Guitars, the Social Sciences, and Christianity

Pardon me while I take a little stroll down the stream of my consciousness …

I love guitar music – mostly anything that comes from an acoustic guitar. I am not so much enamored with electrics, but that is personal preference. So, I have been playing around with my guitars recently and doing a lot of thinking about theology and life in general. Guitars have that magic with me – kind of transport me into another world altogether.

I say that I “play around” with my guitars because I really do not have the ability to play them – at least not to my satisfaction. In my mind there is a real difference between playing at an instrument and making music on that instrument. To use a slightly different image, anyone can open a can of soup and slap some ham on a couple of pieces of bread and make themselves a lunch. But, it takes real culinary skill to create a feast. I’m a can of soup and ham sandwich kind of player. To paraphrase Rowlf the Dog, I’m no Segovia, but I get by.

So, I’ve been pondering what it is that separates a musician from a soup and sandwich hack. It occurred to me that musicians have the ability to do two things that S&S hacks never quite seem to put together. First, musicians understand music. They just get it – all the modes and scales and circle of fifths and all that. Whether they have been taught, or whether it is simply intuitive (which is my guess), they simply know music.

I don’t.

My daughter knows color. She has a rare gift from her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather – but she is just a natural talent at putting colors together. If I have a question about my wardrobe, I can go to her and she can set me straight in the blink of an eye. I’m lucky to have her around. She has that “gift” for visual art that I am talking about with auditory art. Some people have it. Soup and sandwich hacks don’t.

The other thing true musicians have that I don’t is the knowledge of their instrument. In the hands of a true musician, a guitar or a piano or a flute or a violin simply becomes an extension of their body. In my hands a guitar becomes a weapon of auditory destruction. There is more than just a passing difference.

If you put those two things together you get a true musician. If one or both of those things is missing, well, pull out the can opener and reach for the mustard. I know that if I put my finger on the third fret of the first string I get a certain sound. A musician knows that the next sound he or she needs to hear is a G. He or she also knows there are a whole bunch of other frets on the fretboard that will give them that sound. They make music. I can string together some notes that vaguely resemble music.

If you haven’t  guessed by now, I am in awe of musicians. Especially guitarists who can create pure music. I’m talking Segovia and Kottke and Huttlinger and Atkins and Chapdelaine and Romero and the Pimentels and Denver and Hansen and Parkening and Clark and Campbell and from the ladies – Vidovic and Isbin – and probably a dozen others that have slipped my mind. They are my guitar heroes.

Did I say there was a connection here with theology . . . I think I started out that way. It seems to me that there is one way to be a true human being, and another way that closely resembles the soup and sandwich musical hack. You can study philosophy and psychology and sociology and all the related social sciences, and if you work hard enough and long enough you might come up with something that resembles human life. That is like knowing that if you put your finger on the third fret of the first string you get a boink that sounds sort of what you wanted it to sound like.

On the other hand, you can know Christ, and you can know the human instrument. In that case you know that the next sound you want to hear is a G, and you also know there are virtually limitless methods you can use to arrive at that note. It is the difference between knowing how to open a can of soup and creating a feast. When we come to learn Christ, and come to understand what it is that makes us truly human, we are in the realm of making music, as opposed to just hitting some random notes in the proper succession.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus did not come in order to make humans divine. He came in order to enable humans to become fully human – to regain that which we lost in the garden. That has always had a profound impact on me, and, to be honest, I think Bonhoeffer was on to something.

I think it worth mentioning that Bonhoeffer was also a musician – so talented in fact that his family and friends thought that he had a legitimate chance to become a professional musician in Germany. He also knew how to play the guitar. Music, guitars, and theology – now that is a spiritual feast!

Why settle for just plinking around with some notes in the social sciences when you can play genuine music? The best thing about Christianity is that you do not have to have some inherent skill – all you need to do is learn to trust the master conductor. He will lead you into mastering both the music, and your instrument.

But you have to learn how to submit – and to trust – this conductor. Otherwise, all you will get is a can of soup and a flimsy sandwich.