on the enjoyment of music

I love music.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without it. I imagine it must be like living without colour: everything would have the appearance of varying degrees of black and white (and grey).

More than merely something to be enjoyed, I have found music to be a fascinating phenomenon. I have previously written about the connection between music and emotions (particularly nostalgia), but one question I often muse (heh) over is why human beings love music so much.

I recently came across an article by Gavin Ortlund which explores this very question. It is well worth reading in full (“The Real Reason You Love Music”), but of interest to me is Ortlund’s exploration of this question from a Christian worldview perspective. In a beautifully expressed passage, he says:

If a triune God created the world as a work of art—not out of necessity, but out of love and freedom—then music can be understood, along with everything beautiful in the world, as a faint reflection of the pre-temporal glory of God. It is a tiny echo of what was happening before time and space. What rhythm and harmony are trying to do, however imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Viewed in this way, music is not a distraction away from reality, but rather a clue toward it. It is not like an opiate to a man on his deathbed, but like a window to a man in a cellar—a light shining into the darkness, revealing something beyond. In this respect I associate music with art, reason, and sex. They are like little windows through which transcendence touches our lives, whispering to us of a world we have never dreamed.

In short, we as Christians we can readily acknowledge that music is a good gift from a creator God, given by Him for us to enjoy, and through which we can have a sense of transcendence beyond this world into true Reality: God Himself.

If our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him, is it any wonder that He has given us clues in this world — music, beauty, art, nostalgia — things which cause us to resonate with an “inconsolable longing” (as C.S. Lewis would put it) for the eternal?

This makes sense, somewhat, of why we are instructed to sing songs of praise to God (e.g. Psalms 30, 96). If music helps us to know Him, what better way to exalt Him than with it? Indeed, music and singing helps the word of God to dwell in us richly and fuels our joy in Christ (Colossians 3:16; cf Ephesians 5:19).

There are, of course, limits to how far this line of reasoning can go (which Ortlund himself recognises). For example, it is not the case that music proves the existence of God; nor can one truly know God through music (i.e. apart from the special revelation of God through His Son Jesus).

We need also to recognise the power that music has, and to wield it carefully. To seek transcendence apart from God is to court danger. Human beings are spiritual beings, so we naturally long for spiritual experiences; but not all such experiences are from the good God.

In conclusion, may we enjoy the good gift of music with thankful hearts, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart[s], giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)

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“I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.”

My husband struggles with same-sex attraction. Like me, Sam came into this world with an innate and insatiable desire for things that bring death. Like me, he came into our marriage bearing the weight of pain he didn’t ask for and the scars of choices he can’t change. And like me, he has chosen to trust Christ—not to make him heterosexual, but to make him holy.

That is how this article – “I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.” – by Jacyln Parrish starts.

The piece is well worth reading in full, even if you do not experience similar struggles; indeed I found myself resonating with a lot of what she said. (For example, how we all “came into this world with an innate an insatiable desire for things that bring death” (see above)).

Indeed, I found the article in equal parts heavy-hitting…

Marriage is an incarnate manifestation of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22–33), a living and breathing argument for the gospel. Nothing less than his grace could empower us to forgive as much as marriage requires (Matt. 18:21–35). Nothing less than a perfectly faithful God could give us courage to trust something as faithless as another human (1 Tim. 2:13). And nothing less than his love could compel us to love as wholly as we must (1 John 4:19).

… and deeply moving.

When I was in second grade, I bet my eternity on Scripture. When I married Sam, I bet my life on it. The 8-year-old girl in the baptistry anted up as best she could, but the woman at the altar was all-in, and she knew it. If I was wrong, it wouldn’t cost me down the line after death. It would cost me today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life. Suddenly, Scripture wasn’t something I could devote the odd half-hour to; I had to build my life on it, and I needed it beneath my feet every moment. […]

When the scars of past sins start screaming (and yes, they do), Sam and I cling to Scripture and weep together before our Savior, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (Ps. 119:8).

And at the end of each day, both good and bad, we can echo the psalmist: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Ps. 119:16)

Life is tough. Married life — covenantally-committed to a fellow faithless human — is tough. But God’s word is a source of real comfort and edification; and His gospel is good news indeed for a fallen world!

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)

I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.

Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.

But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.

Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.

And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they

teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.

And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.

Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.

But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.

Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.

By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.

But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?

His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.

He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.

Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy.

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley

NY Times, “The Words Men and Women Use When They Write About Love”

A fascinating piece by the New York Times highlights the different ways in which men and women write — and therefore, think — about Love.

When writing about love, men are more likely to write about sex, and women about marriage. Women write more about feelings, men about actions.

The article is worth reading on its own, plus it’s short and the results are accessibly displayed on a rather swish graph. But some of the findings are that:

Men’s words tended to be more active: “bomb,” “hit,” “strike,” “punch,” “battle.” Women were more likely to describe feelings: “resentment,” “furious,” “agony,” “hurt;” they were also significantly more likely to use the word “feel.” Men, meanwhile, didn’t write about different emotions than women – they just mentioned fewer of them.

The authors are candid about the limitations of their study, which examined the last 4 years of essay submissions to the NY Times — in particular, the words used and whether the relevant essays were published.

But despite this highly unrepresentative sample, it corroborates other trends to be found in other studies. For example:

Other studies have shown that females are more likely to talk about emotions than males are, and parents are more likely to use a larger emotional vocabulary with girls and to tell boys not to cry.

This is largely consistent with my own experience too. I find myself (as a guy) to be rather emotionally unintelligent and unable to process my emotions coherently, or to “describe how I’m feeling”.

Ultimately, guys and girls are different. Different despite what modern secular individualism tells us: that we can be whoever (or whatever) we want to be by the sheer force of our personal sovereignty (or autonomy). Indeed, the authors note:

Even as gender roles have merged and same-sex romance has become more accepted, men and women still speak different languages when they talk about love […].

A short post on C.S. Lewis

22nd November 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. Clive Staples Lewis, or ‘Jack’ as he was known to his close friends, was a stalwart of the Christian faith and one of my heroes. I owe much to him and his writings; in particular his Chronicles of Narnia which I read as a child, and his Mere Christianity which I read during a tumultuous period in my life. No doubt he is one of the first few people I’d like to meet when I get to heaven.

Much tribute has been made to him in the year that just passed. Amongst other things, he was honoured with a memorial in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey; he was the subject of the entire Desiring God National Conference 2013; and a number of books have been published this year in his honour (e.g. this one, and this free ebook). I shall not attempt to produce a tribute of my own here. This is largely because everything that can be said has already been said and by persons far more eloquent than I – I would simply not do Lewis justice.

I would just like to share one thing, if I may. C.S. Lewis’s description of faith in Jesus Christ has resonated deeply with me ever since I read it. In one of my favourite quotations from his entire corpus, he writes:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Christianity is the only coherent worldview which explains everything in the world – history, science, the human condition… everything. It is not a blind faith; it is a thinking, rational one, as I have elsewhere described. And, dear reader, if you would earnestly consider the claims of Jesus, I assure you that everything will start to make sense.

To conclude this short post, I would highly recommend the following message preached by Julian Hardyman of Eden Baptist Church, on Lewis’s ‘ legacy, 50 years on. It is such a good introduction to the life and work of a man touched by the love of Christ, who in turn touched the lives of many.

Is faith irrational?

(16) Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. (17) As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

(18) Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (19) Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. (20) Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, (21) being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (22) This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” (23) The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, (24) but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

– Romans 4:16-25 (NIV)

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In our modern age a charge often brought against Christians is that our “faith” is irrational – ‘a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence’ (Bertrand Russell). It is said that to have faith is unreasonable; it does not depend on reasons for belief.

A philosophically comprehensive response to the above challenge would require far more than a mere blog post. In this brief riposte I merely wish to illustrate, from a Biblical perspective, that faith does depend on reasons – reasons for belief. Christians are not unthinking “headless chickens” who trust in the God of the Bible because it merely brings them comfort. (Indeed, if the fundamental reason for our faith, the resurrection, did not happen, the apostle Paul concedes that we Christians are ‘of all people most to be pitied’.)

The above passage from the book of Romans is noteworthy for various reasons, but for our purposes here we shall focus on the theme of faith. The writer, Paul the apostle, considers faith in the account of our ‘father’ of the faith, Abraham. The narrative concerning God’s promise to Abraham can be found in Gen 15-24; but to summarise, in Gen 15:1-5 God promises Abraham (for a second time) that he would bless him and make his offspring as innumerable as the stars in the sky. This promise seemed impossible at the time, since Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and in old age. Yet he ‘believed the Lord’, and this faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15:6).

But why did Abraham believe God’s promise? Here we are ably assisted by the commentary of John Stott:

In this chapter the apostle gives us instruction about the nature of faith. He indicates that there are degrees. For faith can be weak (19) or strong (20). How then does it grow? Above all through the use of our minds. Faith is not burying our heads in the sand, or screwing ourselves up to believe what we know is not true, or even whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. On the contrary, faith is a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking.

On the one hand we have to think about the problems which face us. Faith is not closing our eyes to them. Abraham ‘considered his own body, which was as good as dead, … and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (19, REB). Better, he faced the fact (NIV) that he and Sarah were both infertile. But on the other hand Abraham reflected on the promises of God, and on the character of the God who had made them, especially as he is the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (17). And as his mind played on the promises, the problems shrank accordingly, for he was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (21).

– John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), at 136.

Abraham was not guilty of ‘wilful blindness’ – a legal term which refers to deliberately shutting ones eyes to the truth of the matter. If so his faith would have been irrational, and he would be no less guilty of the aforementioned charge brought against Christians in this modern day. Rather, he considered both the challenges to belief or trust in God, but considered that God’s character and promise far outweighed these challenges. His faith in God was ‘a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking’.

Stott continues:

We today are much more fortunate than Abraham, and have little or no excuse for unbelief. For we live on this side of the resurrection. Moreover, we have a complete Bible in which both the creation of the universe and the resurrection of Jesus are recorded. It is therefore more reasonable for us to believe than it was for Abraham. Of course we have to make sure that the promises we are seeking to inherit are neither wrenched out of their biblical context nor the product of our own subjective fancy, but truly apply to us. Then we can lay hold of them, even against all human hope, yet in hope (18), that is, in the confidence of God’s faithfulness and power. Only so shall we prove to be genuine children of our great spiritual forefather Abraham.

ibid, at 136.

All the above is not to say that faith does not go beyond reason. At some point, once all the cards are on the table, and the reasons point towards one conclusion or the other, a step of faith – a choice – is required. To choose what? To choose to trust:

[F]aith is believing or trusting a person, and its reasonableness depends on the reliability of the person being trusted. It is always reasonable to trust the trustworthy.

– ibid, at 133.

It is worth emphasising that biblical faith is not ‘faith in faith‘ – i.e. a trust in a disembodied concept – but is a trust in a person: God. And the Christian God is remarkably personal. We believe that God came down in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, to die for the ungodly and reconcile us to Himself (Romans 5:6,11). In so doing, He demonstrates His immense love for us. The Christian faith is not a trust in an idea, or an ethical code; it is a trust in a person.

Now, granted, in our modern age the challenges we face to belief are different to those which Abraham faced. For example, our “postmodern” culture has eroded our trust in any objective truth or authority. Can we really trust the Bible? Isn’t Christianity just a dying religion, an idea which will fade into the doldrums of history? Though I shall not attempt to answer them here, these are valid questions to ask, and there are various reasons – good reasons, might I add – to trust in Jesus. (Potential starting points here, and here)

But the important point for our purposes here is that we look for reasons; that we think; that we engage with the difficult questions of life, and not shut ourselves off to contrary views. Indeed, this ‘wilful blindness’ is – potentially – a charge equally levelled against both atheists and Christians.

Skull Fossil Suggests Simpler Human Lineage

“Skull Fossil Suggests Simpler Human Lineage”, New York Times, 17th Oct 2013

“Early, diverse fossils — those currently recognized as coming from distinct species like Homo habilis, Homo erectus and others — may actually represent variation among members of a single, evolving lineage.”

A finding with significant worldview implications.

“A Global Slaughter of Christians…”

The events of this past week or so have been harrowing. Kirsten Power’s article, A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent, is a helpful – but uneasy – read. She calls for American churches to be galvanised into action. But non-American Christians alike must certainly do something; at the very least speak up to raise awareness, or simply pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith.

In light of these events I am reminded of Hebrews 11:35ff. In Hebrews 11, the writer to the Hebrews is talking about the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ to the faith (12:1), who chose to place their trust in God to keep His promise to them of eternal rest and fellowship with Him. Together with the “giants” of the faith such as Abraham and Moses, the writer to the Hebrews mentions some other unnamed heroes:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Heb 11:35b-38)

The culmination of Hebrews 11 is the great statement of encouragement in the first verses of the next chapter:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1-2)

My brothers and sisters who have been ‘slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded’ (K. Powers) for Christ, thank you for witnessing to the faith. Thank you for giving me greater impetus to ‘run with endurance, […] looking to Jesus’. And for those who continue to suffer under intense persecution, I will be praying for you, everyday. 

“Hey Worship Leader, Are You a Theological Lightweight?”

Ronnie Martin, “Hey Worship Leader, Are You A Theological Lightweight?”

Why do we think it’s ok for someone who barely knows God’s Word to lead God’s people in singing the excellency of His Words? Too harsh? Or have we simply produced a generation of worship leaders who are musically adept at singing and playing but spiritually inept at reading and praying?