I have a confession to make…
Although I am a bible believing, openly professing Christian, I have not watched Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004).
There, I said it! Right now I can see Christian mothers covering their baby’s ears, Amish communities turning their backs, and stalwart fundamentalists writing my excommunication letter. Of course I write all this in jest. But I do remember at the time of Gibson’s movie rendition of Christ’s life, death and resurrection being released how driven Christians were to see it. I have a vivid memory of one pastor presenting communion after he had seen the movie. He openly stated that people who had witnessed Gibson’s rendering of Christ’s crucifixion would now have a deeper understanding of how Jesus suffered for us. Apparently, the rest of us simply had to work with a watered down comprehension of the atonement. Perhaps it was this experience that caused me to ‘dig my heels in’ and choose not to watch the film. Please hear me correctly…I don’t think the film is bad or unwarranted (I can’t pass judgement on something I haven’t seen)…I just think the manner in which the Christian community consumes pop culture has much to be desired. Which brings me to my most recent observation of Christians meeting Hollywood Jesus…
In Australia we have a new miniseries showing on TV. “The Bible” is a ten part presentation of select bible stories and while it’s directors and writers openly state that it is not a complete transcription of the bible text (how could it be in ten shows) they readily state that they are doing their best to present the ‘spirit’ of the text. I have no problem with this. Indeed, I welcome it (and not only because some of the cool special CGI effects are really well done). My problem lies with our response to such programs. Simply, how is it that we can find ourselves, as a Christian community, consuming these programs in a non-reflective manner? Just because something is titled ‘The Bible’ or has the name of Christ as its moniker does not automatically quarantine it from assessment or debate. We must grow as a Christian community beyond our modernist ideals which are founded on ‘black and white’ judgements (i.e. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!”) and engage in the postmodern world which exists in the variability of grey-scale. The Christian faith should not shy away from discussion and debate! Might I be so bold as to suggest that it’s only Christ that can add colour, shade and texture to an otherwise two-dimensional grey-scale world?
Furthermore, Jesus challenged his disciples (specifically Peter) to personally comprehend who he was; aside from that which others presented him as. In Matthew 16: 13b–17 Jesus asks,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Again, I’m keen to ensure you understand I am not decrying Hollywood depictions of Christ outright – though there have been some truly appalling attempts! Moreover, I am seeking to remind us that any representation of Jesus will always fall short of a personal encounter with the living Christ. It is only when we allow the real Jesus to directly ask us, “but who do you say I that I am?” that we can truly make a declaration of faith. Meeting Hollywood Jesus simply doesn’t (and never will) cut it!
So does Hollywood (by this I mean pop culture at large) have a place in presenting Christ. Yes! But let’s be mature in how we consume and disseminate our rough and crude likeness of his image and nature. Let’s remember that now, in the 21st century, as it has been for two millennia that our best presentation of the gospel is in how we live our lives surrounded by a culture that does not know Him. “The Bible” (the miniseries) has a place…and who knows…I might even watch Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” one day. Regardless, I hope that the manner in which I live my life does not introduce friends and family to the Hollywood Jesus; but the Christ, the Son of the living God.
This morning I started my day by reading through my Facebook wall and I stumbled across another ‘open letter’ to Guy Sebastian (http://bit.ly/WtO0Xd). This letter is the second of its kind that I have read in the past week; letters that have openly ‘called Guy to account’ for a recent interview (http://bit.ly/Th2LMv) where he described his current faith position. Before continuing I would like to openly state that I do not personally know Guy, nor am I a fan of Guy Sebastian’s artistry (though I have often stated I believe he is a very talented dude); and I have frequently spoken in opposition to the music industry’s infatuation with TV singing talent quests (e.g. http://bit.ly/VaVLfC). But this issue goes beyond Guy’s vocal talent or musical skill – this issue speaks to the topic of spiritual formation and our need to commentate on how another person runs the race of faith.
Specifically, Guy’s musical ability has hardly rated a mention in the social media back ‘n forth of the past few days. It is this very point that is of interest to me…Guy Sebastian is a vocal artist (regardless of his journey’s genesis); he is not a Christian leader, pastor or theologian! I can already hear you correcting me. But Daniel, Guy is a role model to thousands of young people. Yes, he is…and by current secular (and Christian) standards a rather good one. But Daniel, Guy has made categorical statements in the past advocating for the Christian faith. Yes, he has…statements I believe were made with a sincerity of heart and intention when he first made them. But Daniel, Guy should be held accountable for his current faith statements because they do not line up with orthodox/classic Christian views. Should he? I might be able to agree with you (emphasis on ‘might’) if Guy were a Christian leader, pastor or theologian; but he isn’t. He’s a muso; a successful, famous, talented MUSO! Does this excuse Guy from the responsibilities of a life lived publically? No, but it does call into question our expectation around how Guy should or should not articulate his faith journey…his own personal spiritual formation.
I would like to call us, the Christian community, to account. I am keen to do this with as much humility as my imperfect humanness can muster. I would like to suggest that it is us who is in the wrong; and not Guy. Our error is found in our quick judgement and our arrogant responses; responses that (if we are completely honest with ourselves) are driven by a need for power and ‘one-upmanship’. I am the first to admit that when I first read the interview where Guy stated his current faith position I uttered my opinion: “no surprise there…he was always going to let us down!” But there’s the rub. Guy didn’t let us down. It was our own idolatry that lifted Guy to a position of unrealistic and ungodly expectation. We expected Guy to be ‘super human’ and champion the Christian cause. We had literally made Guy an ‘Australian IDOL’. I guess the argument could be mounted that Guy never refused our support. But let me ask us the question, “Would we have refused the same support under the same circumstances?” I’m not bold enough to suggest I would have refused it.
This whole saga reminds me of Jesus bending down to write in the sand. I must admit, despite the bible not telling us what he scratched out in the dirt, if I had stood in the circle with stone in hand (and to my shame I have gathered for a good metaphorical stoning far too often), that my name would’ve been top of Jesus’ doodle list. You are right to think to yourself, “Daniel, your mention of this biblical story is taken out of context. The lady who was about to be stoned was caught in adultery.” That’s right – a moral crime for her day; a crime, according to Jewish law, that required death by stoning. My question to us as a Christian community is, what moral wrong has Guy committed, and why are we all standing around with rocks in our hands? Guy, like me, and like each of us, is on a spiritual journey. Currently, as it would appear, Guy does not view the world according to orthodox Christian views. It seems to me that Guy is questioning the faith construct that he was handed by virtue of his upbringing. How can this be viewed as anything other than maturity? If only more Christians actively reflected on their beliefs and questioned their worldview we might find that much of what we hold dear is not necessarily scriptural but actually cultural.
Now before you turn your attention on me and start casting those rocks my way, allow me to state that I am neither a Pluralist nor a Universalist; an accusation that I believe has been wrongly (and poorly) levelled at Guy. I personally hold that ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life’. But my belief should not be used as a weapon of mass social media destruction in order to make me feel better about my own personal views. Faith is called faith; Faith is not called fact. It does not take faith to believe in gravity…as Fearless Felix Baumgartner recently reminded us (http://wapo.st/Vb8Eqb); but it does take faith to work through the unknowable…those things that cannot be categorised as ‘fact’. This is what, in my view, Guy is doing. Guy is contemplating the unknowable. Guy is exercising faith. How God responds to this, is up to God! One thing I’m most certain of is that God will respond to Guy’s questions with more grace than we have. Why? Because God answers questions. God answers faith…and, thankfully, he even responds to doubt.
In closing my ‘open letter’ I eagerly invite your comments and views. This being said, I ask you to write your responses (even those that agree with my post) with a sense of civility; ‘owning and grounding’ your comments with grace and humility. If you don’t feel you can respond with maturity then I humbly request that you abstain from contributing your thoughts.
After 5 years and 10 months of reading, researching, thinking, analyzing, writing, and editing—it is done! The examiners have reviewed my dissertation and deemed it worthy of doctoral status…such a relief! I would like to take this opportunity to thank my two supervisors, Dr Scott Harrison and Prof Paul Draper, who both contributed mightily to the dissertation. Their careful and considered input never wavered during the arduous journey and as a result the final presentation of the data and my analysis thereof is all the more richer and robust. Thank you gentlemen!
For those of you interested in the finer details, the document is approximately 83,000 words covering some 330 pages; organized into 6 chapters. It sports approximately 800 references taken from over 200 books, articles and recordings. The research queried 85 online survey contributors and 9 interview participants. The results brandish a collection of 19 distinctive features that distinguish the Contemporary Worship Singer as a unique vocalist in the wider community. The implications of the study find their climax in the Contemporary Worship Singer Assessment Tool which all singing teachers who have the opportunity to instruct today’s church singer will find invaluable.
Many of you have asked for a copy of the dissertation once it is ready for distribution. The document can be downloaded from the Griffith ‘open access’ portal here – http://bit.ly/IXArES
Now to the exciting bit…
Over the coming months I will be writing about my research findings; hopefully in a manner that enables church worship directors and Contemporary Worship Singers to apply the information to their current and future activities. As by way of introducing the research findings I will now briefly outline the structure which governed my conclusions. This structure nominates four main pillars of influence on and in the task and identity of the Contemporary Worship Singer. The four research pillars of enquiry are construct, culture, environment and voice.
The label of ‘construct’ acknowledges that the Contemporary Worship Singer exists within the wide and vast framework of Christianity. The construct is serviced by the rich history of Christian worship which can be shown to pre-date Christianity; including and embracing Jewish worship practices. The historical footings of Christian worship have included the practice of singing as an integral activity of the worship construct almost inclusively across theological bounds. The multiplicities of theological positions however have formed ideological camps and these competing views have drawn battlefronts known as the ‘worship wars’. Essentially, what seems to be in continual conflict is the worship style (liturgical, traditional, contemporary, blended and emerging) and the worship form (modular, thematic and flow).
Of course, the multiplicity of worship construct in turn forms specific subcultures. These subcultures can be viewed at various levels: Christianity, denominations, local church etc. The modern western church is grappling with a number of key subjects in the area of worship; especially when considering the persons involved in presenting and leading worship. These contemplations arise, in part, from the prominence of worship in today’s church culture. The label ‘worship,’ as used in my previous sentence, is often contextualized to include those parts of the church service ordered to music. While I am the first to acknowledge that this is a limited view of worship and all that it may (and should) encompass for today’s Christian, it is nonetheless the terminology that many church attending Christians use to describe that which can be also termed congregational singing. While reflecting on the culture of today’s modern worship matters such as the celebrity status (intentional and otherwise) of those leading worship should be considered. My research enquires as to the heightened status of the Contemporary Worship Singer in these modern cultures and in doing so also considers the attributes and place of ‘performance’ as a part of the role. Furthermore, the theological consideration of the ‘anointing’ is reviewed/researched as well as the concept of excellence. Both subjects (anointing and excellence) are found to be contextualized and held in direct relation to the multiplicity of each Contemporary Worship Singers church context.
The practical nature of both construct and culture are observed under the heading ‘environment’. Winston Churchill stated, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The truth of this statement is undeniable and exemplified in the task of the Contemporary Worship Singer. Church architecture plays a major role in shaping and presenting the role of the modern church singer. Whether hearing the singer’s voice emanate from the wings (transept) of an Anglican cathedral or viewing the enthusiastic energies of the Contemporary Worship Singer on a raised stage in a modern auditorium, the architecture serves to accentuate the voice(s) of the singer and the voices of those that they lead. Herein lies a challenge that Contemporary Worship Singers face every time they seek to lead the congregational voice: acoustic space balance. Inherent to the task of leading the congregation in song is the prominent presentation of the leader’s voice. Sing too loud and the congregation may be ‘drowned out’ by the leader’s voice. Sing too quietly and individuals within the congregation may be ‘socially uncomfortable’ and in so feeling reduce their vocal participation. If the acoustic space balance is not managed well, congregations reduce/discontinue their involvement; the very opposite of what the Contemporary Worship Singer is seeking to achieve. Also queried under the label of ‘environment’ is the use of modern-day equipment such as microphones and foldback. Briefly, it would seem that the vast majority of singers are utilizing these modern pieces of equipment, but few have considered their implications upon their role as a Contemporary Worship Singer, and thus little attention is given to developing better strategies for their inclusion in the role.
Finally, my research reviews the use of the voice as the Contemporary Worship Singers primary tool. The teaching and learning of singing (vocal pedagogy) is a well-researched and heavily documented discipline. This being said, the Contemporary Worship Singer and their unique vocal task has received very little (if any) critical enquiry. Much more work is needed in this area, but I am hopeful that my initial findings will be helpful as future research is embarked upon. What I have concluded from this work is that the Contemporary Worship Singer must determine what vocal discipline is best suited to their needs; classical or contemporary. Typically in Australian churches either hymns or choruses are used; generally a mix of both. These two musical idioms fall neatly into the vocal disciplines of classical (hymns) and contemporary (choruses) instruction. Given that most modern worship constructs are using a combination of both musical genres the Contemporary Worship Singer (along with their singing teacher) needs to determine what vocal discipline best suits their overall vocal development. Also exposed by the research is the poorly practiced activity of vocal warm-ups and cool-downs by Contemporary Worship Singers. Anecdotally I believe the findings in this area simply mirror the wider vocal community’s poor practice of caring for the voice through such practices as warm-ups. Regardless, due to the Contemporary Worship Singer’s desire to present a standard of excellence in their worship (culture) they must be encouraged to develop higher standards of voice care and practice; including regular warm-ups and cool-downs.
Over the coming months I will endeavor to unpack each of the ‘pillars’ (construct, culture, environment and voice); breaking down the details, highlighting the findings and offering suggestions for practical implementation. As always I eagerly invite you to write your comments and open dialogue around your views and experiences.