Monday, May 7, 2018

Resolution and Mystery--The Writer's Dilemma at Inkblots

Inkblots gathering in The Scriptorium on a warm spring evening (the heat pump shifted to AC on its own volition), record breaking temp for Western Washington (not the highest standard of temperature, I realize that).

Rachel leads off with a return to her Russian cuisine yarn that makes me salivate, especially at all her descriptions of fine cheese. Trusov, the maître de of maître des. Narrative, fluid, delicious, specific details (Chanel no 5). I like it when you enter with confronting dialogue, a waiter confronting a presumed guest who was out of dress code, but he was an agent coming for government reasons. Short but very intriguing. Patrick comments about writing episodic, epic like, overarching story told in episodes, strong clash of cultures, starkly different elements, gesture toward the unopened door, the big story. He likes the epic feel of this story, following the cheese across Russia, gaining substance and steam as it flows, maybe, ages is the better word.

We discussed the incompleteness of a good story, per Flannery O'Conner and Tolkien, story's action is complete but there is still mystery. This side of heaven there is still incompleteness, mystery. The Bible reads this way: David's history ends but without contextual resolution. Something bigger is coming, more perfect, more wonderful, more complete. But even in Christ and the incarnation, there is a now and not yet element. Mystery and resolution still resides in the future.

Patrick has decided to stop working on the zombie book. Not to abandon the project but to get an editor and perspective on the work. So he is rewriting the graphic novel in conventional novel form. He is also working on a critique of modern Christianity in non fiction. But he decided to read from his work on the Mongol (pagan) and the Puritan (Christian). Drawing heavily from Babylonian mythology, names and cult. Does the opening serve as a prologue? Then you moved into an excerpt from ancient mythology. I hear your love of epic in this, especially the clash of cultures and starkly different elements. I felt this went from big and epic to specific, familial and warm, a good strategy. I love the way you make observations about history and the interaction of the powerful and the subjugated: Farmers are easier to tax.

Bob commented that it has a saga like tone, very suitable.

John's new last chapter, that Doug made me write. What a guy. Rewritten to include an actual baby, since the book, Saving Grace, is all about an unwonted pregnancy. A baby must appear, and be the instrument of changing everything. The interaction between the doctor and the mother seemed stilted. The labor and delivery nurse would do something at this point, reposition her, massage, something. What the doctor and the nurse are doing seems too vague. A moment of final suspense where the baby seems not to be breathing, her mother. And Rachel thought that having her say I was going to kill you, seemed too preachy. Have her stroke her soft cheek, kiss her forehead, show the reader the baby. Bob (Hemmingway) Rogland liked how John used very few adjectives and the simplicity of the narrative.

I finished off with reading three character sketches for my protagonists in The Resistance (working title), my WWII espionage historical fiction. I'm getting more excited about the research an preliminary writing on this companion novel to War in the Wasteland (set in then-atheist CS Lewis's platoon in WWI). How is it a companion, you ask? In The Resistance, the French and SOE agents received their coded instructions on BBC broadcasts. CS Lewis was the voice of faith in the war years on the BBC, hence the French Resistance would have heard his voice in all likelihood, and they certainly will in this account. So much fun, getting to choose the particular words they will hear throughout the various episodes of the yarn! Would you like to read an excerpt of the forthcoming WWII novel? Stay tuned to a forthcoming blog post and reading on The Scriptorium, my podcast at blogtalkradio.com/thescriptorium

  

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Literary Banking: Investing In Your Imagination

Oxford Creative Writing Master Class
with author Douglas Bond
How is a literary tour of middle England like making deposits in the bank of your imagination? Let me show you by giving you a window into the most recent Oxford Creative Writing Master Class.

I wrote the first draft of this post while unwinding with Stilton, Hojiblanca olives, and Languedoc, in drenching London after an invigorating week of guiding seven aspiring writers on a literary tour of middle England (or is it middle earth?).

Let me nudge the door ajar and give you a peek at one brief episode of that inspiring week just concluded. Join me as I rehearse our opening day's literary adventure together:

  • First stop, Martyrs' Monument, rooting our literary tour in history, in this case, the tragic history of the Bishop martyrs of 1555-56.
  • Then off to climb Anglo-Saxon St Michael's Tower (c. 1054) and view Oxford from above, get the lay of things.
  • In the 13th c nave of the City Church, we discussed liturgy, the Reformation, transubstantiation, the rediscovery of biblical truth, Lewis's first communion December 4, 1914, where he "ate and drank condemnation to myself," as an atheist coerced by his father to be confirmed in the Church of England.
  • Then strolled past Christopher Wren's 17th c Sheldonian Theatre where Lewis, still raw from the trenches of WW I, read his winning essay May 24, 1921, placing him squarely on the rising academic radar of Oxford.
  • Dinner at The King's Arms, the eatery with the highest IQ per square inch of anywhere in Oxford.
  • Stop over at the doorway of one of JRR Tolkien's houses, and onward to Merton College Chapel for Holy Week evensong, sung by magnificent college choir (ranks with King's College Chapel Choir, Cambridge, in my opinion), music by William Byrd, with texts by Martin Luther, and concluding with our joining the choir singing Isaac Watts, When I Survey (to Edward Miller's Rockingham Old, the proper tune, not the Lowell Mason ditty we Americans sing it to).
  • Then country drive (on the wrong side of the road) to Banbury Hill Farm, near Blenheim Palace in the nearby Cotswolds, and cheese and chocolate as we launch into our first of many tutorial times together. 

Each day was filled with wonderful and memorable literary experiences that are designed to give expansive breadth and substantive depth to the writer's mind and imagination. We cannot write well if we do not have a well-nurtured mind, heart, and imagination. I sometimes refer to what we are doing as making deposits in the bank of our mind, imagination, and heart, there to be drawn out as we mature, develop our writing skills, and are presented with opportunities orchestrated by the kind providence of our good God. Think of it as literary banking, and now is the gathering, saving, storing up season of life. What a week of literary banking lay ahead!

After experiencing that first evensong at Merton College Chapel (think Anglo-Saxon scholar JRR Tolkien) with my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class writers (think unforgettable intensive writing experience on location amidst the vaulted splendors where so many greats honed their writing craft), on our second day, I had my scholars settle into the hushed majesty of an Oxford college chapel, rain pattering against the stained glass, and write to a prompt.

Decades of teaching have taught me to require nothing of my students that I don't equally require of myself. Hence, I wrote a sonnet for them to parse and scan, and to use as a working illustration of just what iambic pentameter is and why it is so valuable for a writer to submit to the conventional forms of poetry:

I sensed that there were angels here, 
With awe-filled bowing, wing beats drawing near--
Or is it Merton's choir that I hear, 
Mosaic tiles pressed hard beneath their feet?

Amidst the splendors grand, I take my seat, 
Agape at Gothic grandeur, soaring high; 
My mind awhirl with wonderment, I sigh
As choral songs arise and ancient stones reply.

The tapers bow as lyric praise redounds, 
Mute hearts, yet feeling voices, heavenly sounds 
Of Anglo-Saxon accents, blithe and strong, 
Lift glory, laud the Father, with their song. 

Ennobled for the moment, I belong, 
But it's for endless anthems that I long.

(Oxford, March 24, 2018, after evensong at Merton College Chapel).

I am podcasting more details from the recent OCWMC at The Scriptorium. Browse the archive of The Scriptorium for writing tutorial, vignettes of Church history, interviews with other authors, and more, then follow and share.

Join me on the next Oxford Creative Writing Master Class. There are two OCWMCs in 2019 but they will fill fast:

Spring: April 2-9, 2019

Summer: June 15-22, 2019

Space is limited so visit  bondbooks.net and contact me today to reserve your place. #oxfordcreativewritingmasterclass

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Life and Writing: Tragedy, Tumult, and Triumph--INKBLOTS

March 13, 2018 INKBLOTS (two for one)

My next fiction book? WW II French Resistance?
I told about my birthday lunch with my venerable mother (March 13, her 81st birthday), and then about listening to her read aloud vignettes she has been writing from her life: dysfunctional family, bi-polar mother, adultery, illegal abortions for her mother (there's no need for adjective before abortion; they're all illegal in God's sight), she and her siblings separated and placed in various foster homes, older brother chronic trouble with the law (ends up at Ft Leavenworth, then years later dying at mental hospital years later, alone, except for my mother's regular visits), one foster home for my mother, a believing Lutheran family, in the providence and mercy of God, where my mother regularly attended church for the first time, heard the gospel, compensated for the domestic disaster that was her family by excelling in academics, orchestra, student government (she was the first female student body president of RA Long High School, Longview WA), and graduation day was awarded outstanding senior by the faculty (and by student body awarded most likely to succeed, and class clown--she does have a great sense of humor). How to format these vignettes of her amazing life? 

John leads off with a rereading of last chapter of Saving Grace, just edited and proof read by, you guessed it, my venerable mother, and literary wise woman. John has gotten push back from Inkblots before for this being to0 pat, everything works out just hunky in the end. Suicide theme. Did you really try to kill yourself--can you show her incredulity rather than state it like this. Grace's tantrum seems stiff, forced. Nora's comforting feels formulaic, too superficial. And Grace comes around awfully quickly, considering she was about to kill herself a few minutes before. I know, I'm just feeling sorry for myself. And then Grace suddenly gives God glory, seemingly out of the blue, considering the suicide context. I think the reader will be most moved, changed, by seeing the soft, fleshy cheeks of a newborn baby, a teem mother cuddling her real human being, created in the image of God, precious life. Observe a mother with a newborn (Monica in France) and write down all sensory material you observe. This is where this book needs to end. Not everything will be easy, make clear, but everything is now right, new life and new light. Overwhelm readers with the wonder of birth, new life, regardless of and without diminishing the sin and crisis that conceived it. End with cooing baby spitting up, a metaphor for the delights and challenges of life in a broken world.

Patrick thinks that the mom comes around too quickly. Alisa thought there was a huge change from suicidal thoughts and words to settled calm.

So my marriage non-fiction book--what to do with it? Marriages Through the Ages: Delightful, Disappointing, and Dreadful Ones (working title). I received some good counsel from Greg Bailey (editor at Crossway and good friend; and Marvin Ink-in-the-veins Padgett over breakfast last week in Atlanta. Both were cautious about the book, great idea, but difficult to package and sell on large scale (I'm not Keller or Tripp, big names in marriage books along with others). Patrick thinks I should imbed it in story form, a pastor counselling parishioners, meanwhile, the pastor has his own struggles. He gives advice to others but is missing the big issues looming in his own home. Could use dramatic irony, the reader seeing what the pastor is blind to. Made me recollect The Confession by Grisham, featuring a Lutheran pastor caught in the middle of the courtroom thriller; I was handed the book on a plane by a woman whose husband bought it at the airport but she had already read it. Is this where I should invest my writing energies right now? I'm just not so sure. Maybe package as blog devotional material. 

Or there's my WW II French resistance yarn idea, with CS Lewis, the voice of faith, breaking through on the BBC from time to time throughout. This would pair well with War in the Wasteland. I'm enthusiastic about this idea. Then again, I have my long standing Bunyan era historical novel idea still very much on the agenda, but is this the right time? It would follow The Betrayal, The Thunder, The Revolt, and Luther in Love in my adult historical novel category. And I've toyed with the idea of writing another Hand of Vengeance like whodunit, but this one set in 1066 era Norman Conquest France and England. For the time being, I have tabled my American Civil War era novel idea, under counsel from respected publishing peoples; far too much flapdoodle in media and general society to invest energy there, for now; it always had carried with it the potential to alienate blocks of readers arrayed against one another already in the entrenched encampments. Someday.

Patrick has rewritten his Adam and Steve satire yarn, speculative fiction. He feels much better about it. We did heaps of chatting and good conversation this evening. Maybe that's what we all needed. It was warm and pleasant, from my perspective. I trust for everyone else too.

[Previous unposted 'Blots meeting material]

Maybe too close to Valentines Day, but Inkblots, four strong, charges onward and upward. Rachel (whose computer died just as she started to read last time) leads off with another of her scrumptious food-centric yarns. I gain weight just listening to Rachel read her work.

Manhattan setting, shopping outing, with food? Third person, with thoughts, and backstory. Miss Dahlia. Rachel's characters are so unique and human. There is a hint of Ramona. Mysterious, powerful girls you read about in books. Delightful metaphoric doctoring and thrifting. Allusion to Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Lots of chatty dialogue. John wanted to know how much the shoes cost. Rachel said Miss Dahlia gave her a discount. I want to hear more about that exchange. When did the story occur? We tried guessing based on clues from the reading. I thought it reminded me of Beverly Cleary's Ramona yarns, so set in 50s. Rachel said she was up in the air, maybe 90s, but then maybe taking in the Cold War and Communism, or even earlier when the stock market crashed. Might be a good idea to narrow that down. The grandfather is a saddle maker and could have memories of the Depression and its effect on the saddle making business. 

Sydney picks up on her reading, shifting to chapter two and twenty years later. We had discussed the challenges of a twenty year gap from opening episode in prelude to here chapter one. The hour between sunset and dark... soft shadows of dusk. Sydney writes like a Pre-Raphaelite, but unlike many I have heard who write in an archaic style, she pulls it off with ease and authenticity; it sounds like it could be Gothic romance, Jane Eyre-esque. 
girdle, and shilling from under his boot? I was a little confused by both of these description. Sydney has actually improved on the Gothic romance feel, as she stays on intentional trajectory, without the seeming excercies. There is also a Dickensian feel, narrative heavy, with dark mystery, layers of intrigue, and a sense of impending doom around the next dreary dark corner, the gas street lights casting eerie shadows on the cobblestones, oily and reflective in the evening drizzle. 

John wonders where Sydney is going, how long is it going to be? He wondered about the pace. He felt it moved slowly, but he loves Sydney's writing. Intricate detail described. Rachel said she can see everything clearly. White skin and chiseled features, but chews his moustache, which seemed out of character with his chiseled features; buff hunks shouldn't chew their moustache. John wonders why

Good crowd tonight, seven, the number of perfection. We chatted (read, I chatted) about my birthday lunch with my mom for her 81st birthday today. Such an extraordinary woman on so many levels. Her story is the material for Hollywood, but they would slaughter it's outcomes, outcomes ordained by a merciful God who providentially rescued my mother from being another tragic statistic of the materialist naturalist mid century last.



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rejected in London--Reflections from the Past

St James Park, London (2014)
Leaving for London (and Oxford, Olney, Elstow, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Paris overnight on my way home) in a few days gets me reflecting on previous visits, especially the episode where I was rejected by an airbnb proprietor because I am a Christian (more below on that). Here's a few past reflections:
London, one of the world's most extraordinary cities. The place never ceases to amaze me.
It is wonderful to see and feel the hand of God when traveling alone. Bustling past me on all sides, in the tube, on the street, at the shop, or restaurant, or hotel, is a mass of humanity, many even most of whom don't look like they're having a particularly jolly time of it. Frantically trying to fill the emptiness with more emptiness. While wearing the most radical hairdos, miniskirts, and tattoos imaginable.
When you're traveling with others you talk with them, but when you're alone you tend to strike up conversations with more of the locals. Troyin from Nigeria, for example, who packaged up and shipped the books for me. There was something about him right off. I know, I know, everybody says that sort of thing after finding out the other person is a Christian. "Born again," Troyin assured me, leaning close and gripping my hand, and giving me the warmest, whitest African smile.
Then there was the street preacher standing across the street from the Metropolitan Tabernacle where CH Spurgeon used to proclaim the gospel. What boldness! Flanked by indifference and by head-shaking scorn, this fellow proclaimed Jesus to the crowds (check your Bible; the vast majority of evangelism modeled in the Bible is more like what this zealous man was shamelessly engaged in). I went up to him and shook his hand and encouraged him to keep preaching Jesus (a giant like him needed a wimp like me to give encouragement?). "What a friend we have in Jesus," he began loudly singing, putting his arm around me. I put mine around his and sang with him. Till my bus came. Which wasn't very long. Nevertheless, I felt the thrilling wonder of the oneness of the body of Christ.
Here were two men I did not know and we're grinning at each other and hand shaking and hugging like we're long lost brothers... Which, in fact, we are. Love this city! And want to see and know more brothers in it.

Denied a room by atheist proprietor in London


Yes, I know. I write fiction. Some of you may think this is fiction. But it's not. In an episode that calls up images of baking cakes, flowers, and photography, I really was locked out of booking a bnb room in London! While my dear wife was in the process of booking two nights in a London bed and breakfast for me, the booking was first accepted then rejected. We rechecked the calendar for the days I was booking and it still indicated the proprietor had room vacancies for the days I needed a room. When I sent a query to the inn, I had this amazing reply from the proprietor.
Hi Douglas,
I hope this doesn't sound too strange but I kind of think of myself as a total atheist...I love my Catholic mother dearly but still manage to fight with her every Christmas with regards to our views on religion...and wouldn't want to inflict this upon a guest. I hope you understand. I am not in the practice of being 'selective' on faith but feel from your profile yours takes a very active part in your day to day life.
Best wishes, Malika
Here was my reply:
Hi Malika,
I travel a good deal, and this is a first for me. I am a big fan of individual freedom, including the right of a proprietor of an inn to be selective about who she permits to board at her establishment. I do find one thing a bit curious, however. There is the preferred public perception that Christians are the intolerant ones and atheists are the unstinting champions of diversity and tolerance. But I guess not in this case? Perhaps we have this in common: Each of us hold to beliefs that take a very active part in our day to day life--including making decisions like the one you have made, and I enthusiastically support your right to make it. But you've given me something to muse on: Do atheists actually believe and practice their own creed of tolerance and diversity, or simply employ the rhetoric? I assure you I have no hard feelings and wish you all the best,
Douglas  
Pray with me that God by his gracious and sovereign Spirit will open the eyes of this woman. She responded to my reply above by accepting me to stay in the old broken down pub she managed. More from that stay:

The neighborhood I'm staying in is earthy and interesting. Definitely not the 4-star accommodations we will be enjoying on the tour. And the eclectic blend of humanity staying in this intensely out of round airbnb place is odd, fascinating, not-normal--I guess I fit right in! Reminds me of my youth hostel days in the eighties.

Malika, the proprietor, has been a real dear. It's a sad story really. The old pub she has been operating as an airbnb is slated for the wrecking ball in a week or so. Close enough to center city London, the property is just too valuable; a renovated old pub could never generate the revenue that high-rise condominiums could do on the same real estate footprint. So down she comes. I'm hopeful they'll wait until after I leave tomorrow morning!

Malika has spent the afternoon and evening plotting out a sort of end-of-life party for the old pub (she is very talented; skillfully crafted story board work for the gala she is planning with her sister and Hannah and some other friends). It's really quite impressive--and sad. An English teacher from Cheltenham and two young men from Germany and I looked on as they schemed together. The Marlborough pub as you see pictured with its warm, once-cozy fire, will shortly be no more.

It reminds me of what Woody Allan recently said when asked if he hoped his film legacy would last forever, "I don't care about my film legacy. I want to last forever."

Follow my forthcoming travels in London and the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class here and on facebook, twitter, and Instagram (bondbooks) and subscribe to my website at bondbooks.net (@gmail.com)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

LITURGICAL FIDGIT: Why We Need Isaac Watts (and others like him)


Hymn Tour participants at Watts Park, Southampton
As the church flounders about in the “liturgical fidget” (term borrowed from CS Lewis's Letters to Malcom Chiefly on Prayer), Isaac Watts can give us both the theological and liturgical ballast Christian worship so desperately needs (what I here argue for Isaac Watts can be said about many of the luminaries of Church history and hymnody). And he can give us an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered. Without such a rudder, worship is shipwrecked on the shoals of cheap-trick emotionalism generated in much the same way it is at a concert or a football game. Tragically, in place of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16–17), raw feelings of having done so may be supplanting the real thing.

Watts was around nearly three hundred years before Little Richard said, “The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock ‘n’ roll.”[i] But he understood important things about how human beings are wired, things Little Richard and his offspring understand, but which are suppressed or ignored by many in the church today. Watts understood that “our passions are intensely directed toward material things but are hardly moved by the most important discoveries of faith.” He was warring against the stale lifeless singing in worship in his youth, and he rightly wanted to see emotion and passion, as we do, in sung worship. He knew that passions “are glorious and noble instruments of the spiritual life when under good conduct.”

MISCHIEVOUS ENERGIES

But here is where Watts is a counter voice to many well-meaning worship leaders today; he knew that passions “are ungovernable and mischievous energies when they go astray.”[ii] He grasped—and so must we—that it is the business of church leaders both “to assist the devout emotions” and “to guard against the abuse of them.” Centuries before the invention of the electric bass, Watts warned church leaders: “Let him not begin with their emotions. He must not artfully manipulate” their passions and feelings until he has first “set these doctrines before the eye of their understanding and reasoning faculties. The emotions are neither the guides to truth nor the judges of it.” He argued that since “light comes before heat . . . Christians are best prepared for the useful and pious exercise of their emotions in the spiritual life who have laid the foundations in an ordered knowledge of the things of God.”[iii]

FIRST LIGHT THEN HEAT

In the very best of Watts’ hymns, he combines both emotion and knowledge. But for Watts, it is always light first, then heat. The feeling of wonder, the emotion of profound gratitude, the escalating thrill of adoration and praise always follow the objective propositional exploration of the doctrines of the gospel. For Watts, the doxological always followed the theological. And the foundation of ordered knowledge of the things of God that must precede true doxology is essential for all Christians, men and women, rich and poor, in all times and in all places, those with PhDs or GEDs, men from every tribe, kindred, people, and language. We know this not because Watts said so. Watts discovered it from divine revelation. Hebrew poetry in the Bible can be deeply passionate, even erotic, and the Psalms are rich with thrilling emotion, but it is always light first, then heat. Surely this is what the apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote, “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15b).

FEAST OF DEVOTION

The best way to discover this, however, is not by reading Watts’ prose arguments. Read and sing his hymns. A generation of Christians that returns to Watts’ feast of devotion spread before us in his hymns will find celebratory nourishment for both mind and spirit. Watts’ grasp of doctrinal truth about Christ and the atonement will become our grasp. His determination to take every thought captive to Christ will become our determination. His love for children and the poor will become our love. His passion for the lost will become our passion. His thrill at the forgiveness of sins will become our thrill. His praise will become our praise. His awe will become our awe. His wonder at Christ’s saving love for sinners will become our wonder.

All who long for Christ, for being like Him, for adoring Him, for serving Him, for sharing His grace with the world, will find in Watts a treasure trove of experiential doctrine, richly adorning biblical truth that leads to the most thrilling passion for Christ.

CHEAT OF DEVOTION

What about a Christian culture that abandons Watts? We should expect to continue to be cheated by raw emotion masquerading as spiritual light. I for one do not want for an instant to be thrilled with emotion, to become a junkie of my feelings, to be enslaved to raw passion—and tell myself it’s Christ with which I’m thrilled. I don’t want a cheat. I want Christ. I want to examine from every angle the wondrous cross on which my Savior willingly gave up His perfect life for my miserable, unworthy one. I want to see His head, His hands, His feet, the blood and water of His sorrow and love flow mingling down, washing me clean from my guilt and corruption. I want to survey with wonder a love so amazing and so divine. Then, and only then, I want to be carried away, dazzled beyond words, with Jesus my atoning sacrifice, my gracious Substitute, my perfect righteousness.

SURVEY THE WONDER

By the gracious gifting of Jesus, Watts was given a gift of timeless poetic wonder. It was a unique genius. We cannot have it; it was Watts’ gift. But it was a gift given for the edification of the church until we reach that “land of pure delight.” By it, every generation of God’s children can take Watts’ words as their own. By his poetic devotion, every Christian can share in his wonder at Christ and the glories of the world to come.



When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.



Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.



See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?



Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
.


Douglas Bond is author of twenty-six books of historical fiction, practical theology, and biography, including The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (Reformation Trust, 2014) from which this blog post is adapted, and the Mr. Pipes Series on hymnody for children and young adults. In addition to speaking at conferences and leading Church history tours, Bond is also lyricist of New Reformation Hymns and the Rise & Worship album (2017); books and cds are available at bondbooks.net, and you are invited to follow his podcast The Scriptorium at blogtalkradio.com/thescriptorium

[i] Jack Newfield, Who Really Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll? (New York, The Sun, September 21, 2004), on-line: http://www.nysun.com/arts/who-really-invented-rock-n-roll/2037/
[ii] Jeffery, English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley, 82.
[iii] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Newlywed Persecution: 3 Ways to Face Challenges Together


[Let's Pray for Persecuted Marriages Around the World]
“I am prepared to die with you,” whispered Maura to her husband Timothy. It was AD 286 and Emperor Diocletian was ruthless in his determination to stamp out Christianity in the empire. We might expect this devotion from a trusting wife happily married to her husband for decades, but Timothy and Maura had married only twenty days before. They were newlyweds who should have been basking in one another’s love in a cozy bungalow on some warm Egyptian beach along the Nile or the Mediterranean.


Diocletian had other plans for the couple. Timothy was a copyist and keeper of Christian books. We would call him our church librarian, the bespeckled bibliophile who runs the bookstore. But Christian books were contraband in AD 286 and possessing and distributing them was an intolerable crime.

For Timothy’s refusal to turn over the library in his charge, the governor ordered him to be suspended upside down and a heavy rock to be chained to his neck, almost choking him. Still he refused to comply. Next, they applied red hot irons to his ear. Meanwhile, Roman soldiers had seized his wife Maura and, thinking Timothy would crack under threat of harm to his new bride, they brought her in and thrust the young woman toward him. “I am prepared to die with you,” she reassured her husband.

What happened next, what they did to Maura, is too terrible to describe in complete detail. After tearing out her hair, the executioners severed fingers from her hands, then immersed her in a cauldron of near-boiling water. Though onlookers enjoyed blood sports, cruelty masquerading as entertainment, even they began to grumble against the extent of the brutalities inflicted on the young married couple. Yet Maura, alongside her husband, endured with remarkable constancy. When the audience had had enough and called for the governor to halt the torture, Maura replied, “Let no one defend me. I have one Defender, Christ, in whom I trust.”  

Tradition tells us that Timothy and Maura were then led out and, like their Lord, crucified, crosses facing one another, giving thanks to God that they were called to suffer for Christ’s sake. They died together May 3, 286.



MARRIAGE CHALLENGE 


How did Timothy and Maura face such a titanic challenge so early in their marriage? Young newlyweds enduring such brutal martyrdom together, all their temporal hopes and dreams and pleasures cut short? No doubt they drew on the promises of the Word of God contained in those books Timothy refused to hand over to the governor  for burning. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Or Christ’s solemn promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Or “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

When we consider the stalwart faith of a couple like Timothy and Maura, it’s easy for such a marriage to seem too heroic, too unlike our mundane and all-too-comfortable lives, and we push it away, consign it to the fantasy folder in our minds, and dismiss it as wholly irrelevant to our lives and marriages today. That would be a mistake, akin to reading a weight loss story of ginormous proportion but dismissing any application of it to our diet and exercise needs. "That would never work for me. Pass the potato chips."

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

I think there were three heart conditions, three higher loves, that both Timothy and Maura must of had that strengthened their married love for one another, and prepared, and enabled them to endure such a tragedy so early in their married life together:

1. Devotion to God's Word. It's what Timothy did, copy and preserve the Bible and other Christian writings from the early Church. Timothy and Maura were one in their devotion to the Word of God. They knew with renewed minds, and felt with regenerated hearts, that their God is faithful, and whatever trial he has ordained, he will enabled them to endure it patiently (I Corinthians 10:13). Together, they were a married couple who loved God's Word and thereby were impervious to the Enemy's assaults.
2. Devotion to Christ. The Word of God pointed them to the Lord of the Word. I received an email from a former student asking if I would officiate at her wedding. "I finally found someone who loves Christ more than me." This young woman understood something many already married couples do not. Seek love for Christ, first and last, and devoted love with your spouse will be a delightful byproduct. Timothy and Maura's devotion, first and last, in life and in death, was to Jesus Christ. He was their Lord and God, not Diocletian. Couples who claim to be Christians but who have other masters, other lords, other loves, will have great difficulty whispering in one another's ear "I am here to die with you, my love." Timothy and Maura were not friends with the world (James 4:4). They had not made peace with Rome and it's god-deluded emperors. They were devoted to Christ, even, similar to their Lord's, to a horrible death.
3. Devotion to the Kingdom of God. Heaven. Timothy and Maura had their eyes fixed on Jesus; they loved his eternal kingdom. Therefore, no temporal allurement held any sway for them. Their short marriage--twenty days--was not a diversion from heaven.  It was the closest thing to heaven. Still on their honeymoon, they knew that "earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our deepest longings], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing" (CS Lewis).   I remember before I was married not wanting to say "Thy kingdom come," for fear it would, and I would never know the pleasures of married love, children, family. Timothy and Maura were far ahead of me. 

Timothy and Maura's devotion to God's Word, to Christ, and to the heavenly Kingdom of God made them constant in the greatest extremity of affliction. May your loyalties, the things you are most devoted to, make the "things of earth [to] grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace."



Douglas Bond, author of more than twenty-five books, is writing a non-fiction book on the Marriages of the Ages, the good ones, the disappointing ones, and the despicable ones, from which this blog post is adapted. He leads Church history tours, speaks at conferences, writes New Reformation Hymns, and podcasts at The Scriptorium. Learn more at bondbooks.net

Monday, February 5, 2018

Worship as Entertainment: Entertainment as Worship



“We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.” (John Calvin)

Playing at worship

One pundit quipped that Americans “worship their work, work at their play, play at their worship.” I suspect that most Christians would object. Entertainment evangelism “worship,” for them, is the best thing that’s happened to church; the building is full, and look how happy everybody is.

But the numbers may be skewed. According to the Barna Research Group, though five out of six males consider themselves on some level to be Christians, only two out of six regularly go to church. They may be full, but many American churches are two thirds female and one third male.

There are many reasons for this, but changes in music may take center stage. But the debate over worship music, ironically, isn’t very much about worship. Few proponents of entertainment worship music ask what music is appropriate for the worship of God. Instead, with the best of intentions,“They imitate the nations around them” (II Kings 16:10; 17:15-41) in order to be relevant to their tastes and evangelize them.

A leading church-growth expert candidly admits this. “What kind of music do you listen to?” he asked the folks in his community. “I didn't have one person who said, ‘I listen to organ music.’ Not one. It was 96-97% adult contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop. So, we made a strategic decision that we are unapologetically a contemporary music church.”

            Well-intentioned Christians have reinvented what goes on at church by shifting the question. Young church planters generally ask: “What does the world like to listen to?” rather than “What music is appropriate to worship God in the splendor of his holiness” (I Chronicles 16: 29b-30a)? Thus, church growth becomes the all-excusing rationale for what people sing in church. And they tell us it’s working. “Right after we made that decision and stopped trying to please everybody,” claimed one church-growth expert, his church “exploded with growth.” End of discussion.

            Or is it? Roman emperors packed out arenas by giving entertainment-crazed citizens what they liked. People showed up in droves. We too are a culture that values amusement. We like to feel good. We like to sway and clap. We like rapid images passing before us. We like celebrity. And we’ll pay for it. Church growth proponents argue that cashing in on the postmodern infatuation with entertaining music will fill churches. So give them what they want.

The late Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death cites the executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Associations who seems to agree with the church-growth philosophy: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

Postman, though no Christian, made the perceptive observation: “This is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want. Only what they need.”

When the church fashions worship to entertain the world, to give people what they want, it inevitably creates, as one journalist termed it, “a Christian ghetto watering down the gospel.” Moreover, when the goal is to make Christian worship appealing to a feminized culture we inevitably alter the message and make it less offensive--and less Christian.

Whenever Israel imitated the pagan worship of the nations around them, God became angry and judged them. Thus, John Calvin urged that “all human inventions in worship be removed and driven from us, which God himself justly abominates.” Far from aping the world, Christian men ought to stand against the impulse to reinvent worship so it looks and sounds like the world.



Loud, loud, loud!

In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis described heaven as a region of music and silence. The demon Screwtape is frustrated by this reality: “Music and silence—how I detest them both!” He boasts that in hell:



No moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the great dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards earth. The melodies and silence of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.



But contemporary church growth enthusiasts, however, don’t seem to agree. “We are loud,” says one mega-church pastor. “We are really, really loud. I say, ‘We're not gonna turn it down.’”

Conversely, Lewis sees music and silence as complimentary features of heaven. He gets this, of course, from biblical passages where God calls us to “Be still and know that I am God,” and to “sing for joy.”

But does high-volume rock ‘n’ roll fit with the music and silence that Lewis describes, or does it sound more like the noise and loudness Screwtape and many church growth leaders prefer? This isn’t as hard a question as we’ve made it. Nevertheless, church growth advocates and most musicians agree with pop music expert Don Butler, “Every style and form of music can become gospel, whether it’s jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, or rap” (Inhouse Music, March/April 1991).

Tolkien readers will immediately think of Boromir, who, rather than destroy the ring, urged the fellowship to use the power of the ring--for good ends. Like the post-conservative church, Boromir, too, was certain that he would not be corrupted by it. He was wrong.

Beware. If entertainment evangelism advocates can convince you that music is amoral, merely a matter of taste, then the discussion ends—and so does discernment. Wise young men, however, will be suspicious of conclusion that sweep away moral judgment.  



Moral or amoral?

In the preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1545, Calvin wrote of music that “there is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn the morals of men.” Yet Christians today insist that “Music is amoral.”   As if to say, “Just use the ring!”

But historically nobody has thought music was amoral. Agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Preface to The English Hymnal wrote, “Good music for worship is a moral issue. The eternal gospel cannot be commended with disposable, fashionable music styles, otherwise there is the implication that the gospel itself is somehow disposable and temporary.” Tragically, well-intentioned Christians, confused by the amoral argument, may be undermining the gospel by making it appear throwaway to the watching world.

Paste in whatever words you want, loud entertainment music already conveys its own message. Certainly it makes people clap and feel exhilarated, but it’s not conducive to careful thinking about the whole counsel of God. Entertainment music creates a feel-good atmosphere, but it doesn’t work well to make men feel bad. It does excitement and infatuation well but is largely bankrupt on conviction and repentance--essentials not only of biblical evangelism but of sanctification and true growth in grace.

Traditionally, music in church was employed to commend the objective message, to play second fiddle to the words. But entertainment evangelism switches this around. Eager to “imitate the nations around them,” musicians force the high objective truths of the Bible into the background. Thus, praise songs repeatedly state adoration but with few if any doctrinal reasons given to biblically support and adorn those statements. And increasingly the object of adoration is vague.

            Gene Edward Veith, writing for World Magazine, concluded his review of a wide range of popular Christian materials: “So much of this Christian material says nothing about Jesus Christ.” 

How ironic! I thought evangelism was the reason for using entertainment music. So why remove much of the explicit Christian content from the lyrics? Though the Bible is clear, Christ is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (I Peter 2:8), still we’re afraid to offend the world. The Spirit of God only removes the offense through the objective truths of the Word of God--the very thing that many post-conservative Christians are watering down in their music. Little wonder the church looks and sounds and acts like the world--instead of the reverse.



Look at me!

Visiting a church one Sunday morning, I led my family cautiously through a minefield of microphone wires and amp chords to our seats—just beneath a speaker the size of a piano. My kids stared wide-eyed at the bongo drums, the Starbucks coffee in nearly every hand, the female worship leaders and effeminate males on stage in their Hawaiian shirts. One of my young sons leaned over and whispered, “Is this an entertainment show?”

One thing is indisputable: the seeker-friendly service is shaped by the entertainment industry. Of course they’re using entertainment as a means to an end: evangelism. Most church leaders want to get them in the door by entertaining them with a really good band. But is this compatible with the spirit of celebrity seen throughout the entertainment world?

Michael Bloodgood, heavy-metal bassist and Calvary Chapel pastor, thinks it is. “We’re like Billy Graham with guitars. Rock and roll is neutral. It depends on the spirit.”

Check out the album covers on the latest ads from your Christian bookstore if you want to discern the spirit. You’ll discover shameless aping of secular musicians: provocative females, touchy-feely males, and armed-crossing hauteur. Plunk in the CD and you will hear desperate mainstream-wannabes screaming to be noticed by secular record labels.

Late rock musician Keith Green saw all this coming. “It isn’t the beat that offends me, nor the volume—it’s the spirit. It’s the ‘look at me!’ attitude I have seen at concert after concert, and the ‘Can’t you see we are as good as the world!’ syndrome I have heard on record after record.” That was decades ago. Things have not improved.

British pastor, John Blanchard in his little book Pop Goes the Gospel says this worldly exhibitionism sets up Christians to act like “stars instead of servants.” He argues that the entertainment model inevitably leads to a groping for celebrity status and is why entertainment evangelism “so easily encourages worldliness.”

 What historian Paul Johnson observed about culture in general the church seems desperate to imitate. “Entertainment [has] displaced traditional culture as the focus of attention, and celebrity has ejected quality as the measure of value.”



I don’t listen to the words

Getting the musical cart before the objective-content horse is not simply a contemporary issue. Calvin faced it in the sixteenth century: “We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.”

Long before Calvin, Augustine wrote approvingly of church singing, but added strong caution. “Nevertheless, when it happens that I am more moved by the song than the thing which is sung, I confess that I sin in a manner deserving punishment.”

What would these saints say about Christian worship today? Their concerns predated the development of instruments and amplification technology designed to create psychological euphoria with loud, penetrating musical noise. A thoughtful young man, a future leader in the church, must ask: “Does entertainment music draw attention to itself and to the performers, or does it aid in making understandable the objective meaning of the words being sung? Does it awaken discernment or distract?” The jury is in. Most Christians, however, refuse to hear the verdict.

What is the universal response when parents ask kids why they listen to secular music with trashy lyrics? “I don’t listen to the words.” Amusement music is produced to affect an emotional response from the music itself rather than an intellectual response to the meaning of the words. Which compels the conclusion that entertainment music is probably a poor choice to “renew the minds” of unbelievers. I wonder how many entertainment-music-loving church goers are too distracted and “don’t listen to the words”?

                        

Who’s evangelism?

J.I. Packer wrote that “When evangelism is not fed, fertilized and controlled by theology it becomes a stylized performance seeking its effect through manipulative skills rather than the power of vision and the force of truth.” John Blanchard exposes the problem of depending on music to do what only the Spirit and Word of God can do: “Musical conditioning is not the same as the Holy Spirit challenging the mind to think, the spirit to be still, and the heart to be humbled in the presence of God.” In this they are only stating what the church has thought and practiced for centuries—until now.

Luther made a clear distinction between worthy and unworthy music. “We know that the devil’s music is distasteful and insufferable.” But many Christians roll their eyes when someone says, “Rock has always been the devil’s music.” But it was rocker David Bowie who said this. He went on. “You can’t convince me that it isn’t. I believe that rock ‘n’ roll is dangerous.” Still the church imagines that by using music styles conceived in the sexual revolution it is plundering the Egyptians. It may prove the reverse.

Burk Parsons, managing editor of Table Talk, and founding member of the Backstreet Boys, quit rock and roll. Why? “The world of show business is the world of man-centered entertainment. The foundational philosophy of man-centered entertainment is to do whatever it takes in order to attract millions of fans and to make millions of dollars.” This requires the “entertainment gurus” to track all the latest cultural fads and follow the “whims and fancies” of the music listening public, like many candidly admit doing. Parsons continues, “This has become the philosophy of many evangelicals [who] have exchanged God-centered worship for man-centered entertainment that is founded upon the ever-changing principles of the culture rather than upon the unchanging principles of the Word of God.” He calls us to worship according to the Word of God, “which transcends the current trends of modern culture.”

Entertainment church-growth experts claim, however, that no church will grow if it does not change over to entertainment music. One wonders how Spurgeon, Calvin, Edwards, or Luther did it before guitars. Church planters are correct about the power of loud entertainment music to change people. Decades ago, rocker Jimi Hendrix understood this. “Music is a spiritual thing of its own. You can hypnotize people with the music and when you get them at their weakest point you can preach into the subconscious what you want to say.”

London preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote concerning music’s power, “We can become drunk on music. Music can have the effect of creating an emotional state in which the mind is no longer functioning as it should be, and no longer discriminating.”

Blinded by a flawed theology of salvation, I wonder if Christians now expect music to do what only the Holy Spirit can do: woo sinners by changing their mind and will, not by first altering their emotions, but by drawing them by the power of the Word to repentance and faith in Christ.



Worship like a man

Examination of entertainment church music exposes a number of problems: over-familiarity and sentimentalism; the tendency to bring God down to man’s understanding; lyrics written by young people who are musicians first, rather than hymn poetry written by experienced, gifted Christians with theological training; the tendency to sing about what we’re singing about; simplistic repetitiveness; lack of biblical progression of thought; in short, the dumbing-down of the message in order to fit it into the entertainment medium.

But let me speak man-to-man with you about the feminization of Christian worship. This has happened in many pernicious ways but perhaps nowhere more uncomfortably for Christian young men than in singing.

In contemporary worship, the girls stand caressing the air with their hands, swaying with the pounding rhythm of the music, their voices hushed and breathy, eyes pinched closed, crooning along with the worship leaders.

What are most guys doing? Shuffling their feet uncomfortably. Embarrassed by the public display of emotions, and embarrassed--or allured--by the provocative outfits and yearning posture of the female worship leaders or soloists.

Christine Rosen in the Wall Street Journal, connected plummeting male church attendance with the growing number of women taking leadership roles in the church. In his recent book, Steve Farrar decries the “feminization of our boys” in contemporary worship. “Am I in a church or a spa?” he asks. “At a deal like that, you don’t bring your Bible, you bring your moisturizer.”

In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow argues that because contemporary worship is “tilted toward the feminine heart, created for sensitive women and soft-hearted men to meet Jesus,” a masculine man feels emasculated, “like he has to check his testosterone at the sanctuary door.”

In the canon of classic hymns, however (see appendix), men for centuries have sung of battles and fighting, of conquest and triumph, in short, of the manly Christian themes found in the Psalms.

“But today’s praise songs are mainly love songs to Jesus,” wrote Murrow, offering the example, Hold me close, let your love surround me… I’m desperate without you… Jesus, I’m so in love with you. Another song a student gave me begins Your love is extravagant; your friendship—mmmm--intimate. These “Jesus-is-my-girlfriend” songs represent a genre choked with songs no Christ-honoring, self-respecting young man can sing. 

A serious Christian man is stumped. Women worship leaders and effeminate men make you feel unspiritual if you don’t sing and behave like women. What are you to do? Know for starters that “you don’t have to be a girlie man to be a godly man.”

This is war--culture war. It’s time to break ranks with feminized worship and restore biblical manhood to the church. It begins with you and your generation. Prepare yourself to step up with manly leadership. Worship God in the splendor of his holiness. Cultivate a deep appreciation of what men in the church have sung through the centuries. Then “Rise up [young] men of God; be done with lesser things.” 

Excerpt from Bond's 2008 book Stand Fast, the first in his Fathers & Sons series for dads to read with their teen sons. Bond is author of twenty-six books, New Reformation Hymns, and articles in Modern Reformation, Table Talk, and other journals. He is a frequent speaker at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours. He also hosts The Scriptorium, a weekly podcast on Church history, literature, writing, practical theology, art, and life. Subscribe to bondbooks.net to follow