Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contemporary Worship Wisdom from a Medieval Rhetorician

13th C Madonna, Assisi. Public Domain.
"Permit an old word to regain its youth by giving it a home in another situation where it can be a novel guest, giving pleasure by its strangeness."

-- Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, translated by Kemper Crabb in his essay, "A Manifesto: Making the Beautiful Strange"

I received this quote and the brief manifesto in which it appears, from a colleague in another denomination (the Rev. Dr. Duane Arnold, an Episcopal priest) who is working on a significant musical project with a colleague in our own, a deacon from the Iowa Annual Conference, The Rev. Michael Bell. That project embodies this quote from another longtime friend of Duane, Kemper Crabb, who is doing something along similar lines.

Duane and Michael are working on recording musical settings of prayers of a number of the church's martyrs, from Carpus of Pergamum to Oscar Romero, with others between and before. These are ancient words or words from settings of martyrdom, far removed from much we know of Christianity in American, now being clothed in a variety of contemporary musical idioms and made singable for individual or corporate prayer. Having heard a sampling of these pieces, I can tell you they fulfill Geoffrey's ideal. The unfamiliar words are truly novel guests, giving pleasure in their strangeness.

At present, it appears The Martyr's Project may in fact be released in time for the beginning of A Season of Saints in 2012 (October 7-November 4). If so, you may wish to consider using their arrangements of prayers by Carpus (October 6, 2012) or Dietrich Bonhoeffer (October 23, 2011) in worship in some way if you choose to commemorate them at some point.

Kemper Crabb's project is the revival of medieval western music, but not as it has usually been done. As a student of medieval music myself as an undergraduate (and my favorite Western musical period remains late medieval, early Renaissance-- go Harmonia!), I'm well acquainted with and even love the efforts to recover and perform medieval music as authentically as possible (auf Alten Instrumenten, as we say auf Deutsch!). 

But Kemper Crabb is right. As he writes in his manifesto, "a brute retrieval of these songs is not enough.... Those vital things which have been allowed to sink into obscurity must be resurrected, though in a fashion which renders them accessible and attractive to an age which has forgotten them." 

And that's what he does. Here's a sample.

Ever heard of John Dunstable? Guillaume Dufay? Johannes Ockeghem? Josquin des Prez? Can you sing a single phrase from any of their works? I can. But most folks I know can't. For them these names are unknown, lost, or perhaps at best forgotten.

Forgotten maybe. But not finished. The poetry and music of these composers can still sing, and not just in academic institutions funded to preserve the relics as they were.

Let me bring this home a bit more though. How many different Charles Wesley hymns do you still sing? He wrote hundreds of hymn texts. We have a bit over 40 in the current United Methodist Hymnal. The Music and Worship Study we conducted in the last quadrennium showed we United Methodists in the US tended to sing perhaps 1 or 2 Charles Wesley hymns per month. We don't know this, but based on observation, we think this may amount to perhaps 6-8 different Charles Wesley hymns per year. As for the rest of the corpus? Probably like Dunstable, Dufay and the rest, unknown, lost or forgotten. 

To be sure, there are composers who are bringing Charles Wesley hymns back with new tunes. Mark Miller's 2000 "Azmon's Ghost" sets "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" as the first piece in the new collection of congregational songs for United Methodists, Worship&Song. Old words, new tune. Carl Thomas Gladstone and Jackson Henry, among others, are doing the same with other Charles Wesley texts.

But generally not the forgotten words. Not the lost texts, those we've never sung and perhaps never even knew existed.

What will it take to resurrect those... not simply retrieve them by brute force, but actually experience their unique life and life-giving power here and now?

Ancient Future Here and Now
The challenge is not unique to whether we United Methodists recover more of our Wesleyan texts or even tunes. ("Love Divine," for example, was written to a Henry Purcell aria, and in fact is a parody of its text. Charles Wesley was the superior poet!).

No, the challenge, and the opportunity before us, is nothing less than to dwell in all the riches of prayer, music, art, and the drama of liturgy and ritual itself of the entire church in every place, riches all ours to learn from and share. And as we do so not simply retrieve them by brute force, but truly resurrect them, as Kemper Crabb says.

The Madonna from Assisi, pictured above, for example. Look at it closely. What happens if instead of seeing this as a medieval fresco belonging on the ceiling of an Italian church (which it is), we place it alongside works of painters like Pablo Picasso or Paul Klee? What do we beauty can we see and rejoice in that we might otherwise have overlooked were it not keeping such strange company among us here and now?

Now think of lost practices of worship where you are. The saying of a creed, for example, or the singing of the Gloria in Excelsis (or the Gloria Patri, for that matter!), or the chanting of the Psalms. What about the use of the ancient sign of the cross? What about kneeling?

What might it be like, as Geoffrey of Vinsauf reminds from eight centuries ago, to let these some of these or other old gifts regain their youth by making their home among us as novel guests?

How might we revel and rejoice in the Triune God who inspired them all through the beauty of their very strangeness?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? (Conclusion)

Image: Viking Karwur. Used under CC 2.0.
Final installment of a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music Ministries at Northwestern College in Orange, Iowa. The full essay may be downloaded from the GBOD website, here.  

New Creation and the Renewal of All Things

N.T. Wright, with much of historical Christianity, is clear about this: God's goal for all things will be accomplished not by removing what is salvageable from "this present darkness" into some ethereal (and perhaps even Lethean) state, but rather by a new, physical creation in which sin and death are no more. 

Only two biblical texts included in the Services of Death and Resurrection point in any way to the new creation and the renewal of all things.  The more explicit is Revelation 21:1-7, which clearly describes a new earth taking the place of the former one and records the words of the Enthroned One, who says “See, I am making all things new” (UMBOW 146).  Isaiah 40 proclaims that even the features of the earth itself, valleys and mountains and uneven ground, will be remade as God’s glory is revealed (UMBOW 144). However, the use of Isaiah 40 in this context seems to be primarily as a comfort and hope for the grieving, that they may be raised from their grief in this life, rather than a more concrete hope (as in Revelation) for a new creation. 

On balance, then, while the Services of Death and Resurrection embrace bodily resurrection (as we have seen, in Part 2), they seem to do so primarily as a hope for individual believers rather than as part of a comprehensive vision of new creation and the renewal of all things. 

This is, perhaps, understandable: mourners come to a funeral or committal or memorial concerned over the fate of a particular friend or relative.  While grieving, they may not consider the wider implications of Christ’s resurrection and God’s ultimate plans for all of creation. 

At the same time, it may be lamentable. Resurrection of individuals leaves us hoping for a solely human future. What of the rest of the created order? Indeed, how can humans even be humans apart from our connections with the environment and the other creatures with whom we live and move and have our being? If bodily resurrection is proclaimed in our services without sufficient attention to new creation, can we be said to be proclaiming bodily resurrection at all?

Conclusion – Hope for Future and Present

We see that the Services of Death and Resurrection are better aligned with some of N.T. Wright’s points about resurrection than others.  The official United Methodist liturgy firmly announces a bodily resurrection, may posit (but if so only tepidly) that the deceased are in an interim state of rest until the resurrection and new creation, remains relatively non-commital on the questions of the location of heaven, and says little about new creation as the ultimate and comprehensive purpose of God’s salvation.

Does this mixed record matter?  Why should pastors pay close attention to such theological and eschatological “technicalities” in the face of the grief and loss?  Wright maintains adamantly, and convincingly, that these are no technicalities, but bedrock of Christian teaching. What we believe and proclaim about the resurrection matters enormously, especially at times of death and grief:

            The point… is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.  To hope for a better future in this world – for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world – is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought.  And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present.  It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it (pp. 191-2).

A robust proclamation of resurrection and new creation, in other words, can heal the Church of false decisions between healing bodies and saving souls.  It can help Christians see our calling to work for God’s kingdom both in the here-and-now as well as in the age to come.  And it gives a much-needed correction to our habit of seeing religion, faith, and death in terms of the individual rather than in terms of God’s entire cosmos. 

While Christians are to announce the fullness of the Bible’s eschatological claims always and everywhere, there may be no better place or time to proclaim this surprising and challenging good news than at funerals, memorial services, and committals.  If we can boldly and rightly affirm the goodness of God’s creation, the truth of a bodily resurrection, and the comprehensiveness of God’s redemption and renewal of the entire creation, we can help each other live as those aflame with hope for the future and with purpose in the present.  We can get about the business of being the Church: offering a living witness to God’s kingdom, begun through the death and resurrection of Christ and coming into being with our own participation.  United Methodists, with our proud history of passion for social justice and activity in providing relief to those in need, ought especially to be able to hear and respond to Wright’s call.

Postscript: Making Our Rite More [W]Right

We’ve noted in this review where United Methodist Services of Death and Resurrection embrace, remain non-committal, and sometimes even resist a full proclamation of all that the resurrection entails. It’s time now to take the next steps. We have the opportunity to make our witness to this “surprising hope” substantially richer and more orthodox, especially within our ritual responses to death. 

Theologians and liturgists, artists and musicians, preachers and poets, consider this your call! Summon the gifts of understanding and artistry the Spirit has given you, and begin crafting more biblically-informed responses to death for our churches and the wider church as well. We do have a surprising hope to proclaim in the face of death, and in the midst of this life.  Help us sing, proclaim, pray, and reflect on the surprising hope of God’s kingdom now and for the day of resurrection and new creation in which sin and death shall be no more! 

Editor's note: As you respond to Dr. Josselyn Cranson's call, we invite you to share what you craft with the world through the GBOD website and this blog. Send them to worship@gbod.org.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Revolutionary Nicene Creed

Nicene Creed from Bach's Mass in B Minor.
The Nicene Creed as revolutionary? A creed that got its start because of one imperial order, and was later adopted because of another one? A Creed that seems full of technical language few purport to understand these days?

These things are true about the Nicene Creed. But it is no less revolutionary!

When we take a closer looks at this creed, it reveals a revolution alive and well-- regardless of whether Constantine or others knew it or wanted it to be so.

One God, Father Almighty, maker of all things seen and unseen... This precludes the notion of any power higher than God, including Caesar, or any identification of the state with God.

One Lord, Jesus Christ... eternally begotten of the Father, begotten not made-- This encodes incarnation even before we get to the article that makes it explicit -- that Jesus Christ is true God with us, and we as Christ's body, the one holy catholic and apostolic church-- have a continuing call, empowerment and responsibility to incarnate him and his ministry in the world. This is no passive retreat from the world, but marching orders into it. The Father begat and enfleshed Self in the Son.  That's what we are to continue to be and do in the world. Jesus Christ alone is the coming judge-- no earthly ruler has the final say. He alone sits at the Father's right hand-- he's calling the shots right now in ways no earthly ruler can or does.

One of the more common critiques raised against all the major creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian) is that they do not take the earthly ministry of Jesus seriously. If one is depending on the creeds alone, or this creed in particular,  to carry all the weight of all the doctrine of the church, its actual teaching ministry, that is, that's not an unreasonable criticism. 

But what we know about the teaching ministry of the church in these early centuries is that it intensely focused on the life and ministry of Jesus and the implications and expectations for Christians as a result. Christians were not proclaiming his incarnation, death, resurrection, and coming again as disembodied beliefs about him. Not even at Nicea!

Indeed, the Council of Nicaea strongly reaffirmed a three year catechumenate  as the norm for Christian formation and actually strengthened that practice in a number of ways. And what we know of the catechumenate is that it was deeply focused on the way people embodied Christ's ministry and calling. Indeed, during the three years, very little doctrine was taught. That would come later, after baptism. But for starters, what mattered was learning to live as Jesus taught-- to love neighbors and enemies, to serve the poor and the frail, to make peace with all.  

So why isn't this in the Nicene Creed? Because none of this was controversial! The reason Constantine and later Theodosius called bishops into Council was in part to create a document that could settle what was controversial. When it came to  life and ministry of Jesus and its importance for the lives of Christians-- everyone already agreed on that, and practiced that. There was nothing more that needed to be said!

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life... who has spoken through the prophets.... That statement alone signals its time for the establishment to start looking for cover! What did the prophets speak? End all idolatries and make society just-- interpersonally, in families, in economics, in politics. When we read the prophets, identify God's voice, and follow through on what we hear, the revolution cannot but be rekindled. This may be one of the most explicitly kingdom of God oriented and establishment-denying affirmations in the entire creed.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins... It is in baptism that forgiveness of sins is established-- not in any pardons from the state for acts done on behalf of the state. With forgiveness grounded in baptism, which by this time was often near the beginning of physical life (usually within 8 days of birth), and which functioned as initiation into the church regardless of when one entered it-- forgiveness becomes a defining standard of the life of the whole Christian community. Mercy and forgiveness were central in the "way of life" questions in the early catechumenate. The primary qualification to become a bishop in late 4th century Syria was that the candidate be merciful, always ready to forgive sins and restore the community. Forgiveness embodied in Christians can leaven the world as long as we in the Christian community continue to live this way. 

I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come... Resurrection and the life of the world to come  is no form of escapism. Rather it was empowerment for bold action in Christ's name in this life with no fear of death. This is about fearless love and bold mercy. The martyrs of the church prior to Nicaea as well those who had gone through great suffering and were present at that council were clear about this. No escapism, just fearless love of God, service to Jesus Christ, and mercy toward every neighbor in the power of the Holy Spirit even if it meant we may die.

Sounds like a revolution to me...