February 15, 2016
And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. Exodus 12:36 (New American Standard Bible)
The above verse from Exodus is a comment on the place and use of secular wisdom by and for the people of God. Good examples of this would be found in the many discoveries and benefits of science, technology, and the arts, particularly music, I think. I first learned of this concept of “plundering the Egyptians” from reading John Wesley, who was a believer in that idea. So was his brother, Charles.
Charles Wesley is wonderful. He wrote somewhere around 6,000 hymns in his lifetime, that is, from his thirty-first year to the end of his life. The reason for mentioning his age is because Charles did not count anything he had written prior to his “conversion” experience of Sunday evening, May 21, 1738, as having any real validity or worthy of documentation. I suspect that he was wrong about that, but we’ll never know on this side of Glory. We only know from his journal entry just after Wednesday evening, May 24, 1738, that either “And Can It Be (that I should gain),” or “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin” was the first hymn he acknowledged writing. That was because May 24 (red letter day In Methodism) is the day his brother, John, was “converted” and came with “a troop of our friends” to share with Charles what had happened. Charles wrote, “We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer.” Incidentally, you may wonder why I placed the word “conversion” in quotation marks. That is because I do not believe that either John or Charles were “converted” that evening. I believe, as do many Methodist clergy and lay people, that what they experienced on May 21 and 24 was a sensing of the realization of the indwelling Spirit of the Risen Christ. But that’s my two cents, such as it is.
Afterwards he wrote verse at a red-hot pace in order to account for over 6,000 hymns in forty-nine years. Just a bit of trivia here: there are fifty-two weeks in a year, and fifty-two times forty-nine is two thousand five hundred fortyeight. Charles would have to write over two complete hymns a week in order to come up with that body of work. As you might expect, not all of them were “gems.” Some were not very good. But most were loaded with a skillful use of scripture because one of his goals in writing hymns was to provide a means of educating the “people called Methodists.” He and his brother intentionally, self-consciously, and unapologetically used existing hymn tunes popular in their day. Many were drawn from taverns and other meeting places. The brothers, along with Isaac Watts, their contemporary and fellow hymn writer (they affectionately referred to him as “Dr. Watts”), were criticized by their own constituents for using secular music as vehicles for their verses. The comment, “Why should the Devil get all the good music” has been attributed to Watts. Whether he actually wrote or said that, I really don’t know. I have simply read and heard that for many years.
In any case, and again, the use of the secular for spiritual benefit is of great interest to me. That would include the insights gained from general higher education found in colleges, universities, and seminaries (notably biblical higher criticism), the world of the branches of Science—Physical, Life, and Earth—and among them the divisions of Chemistry, Geology, Botany, Biology, Physics, Astronomy, and others. I don’t believe that science/religion and faith/reason are opposed to each other, no matter what anyone else says in order to disagree.
The Church is the Body of Christ, to be sure. But I would also be so bold as to say that it is “part of the Body of Christ,” because I do not believe that the institutional church is the harbinger or repository of all Truth (particularly scientific), or Beauty, or Wisdom, or Unity (the church(es)—with their many split-offs--have less to say about this than any other aspect of existence, I think). Oftentimes, the nature and essence of the “Good” is not known or acknowledged by the Church, and one must sometimes go outside it to find “the Good.”
I am writing this Perspective article the day after attending with my friend, Vernon, a concert in Charlottesville featuring Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) and the Nite Trippers. A few Christians know of Dr. John, who is from New Orleans, first appeared in the late sixties, and I myself have been a fan of his from the beginning. Yes, indeed, I am totally aware that he sings songs that come from his culture, including such voodoo references as “Gris-Gris” (an amulet or charm) and “Walking on Guilded Splinters.” I’m not a fan of Black Magic in any form or fashion, but I still hear in his work beauty, craft, and excellence. Now that Allen Toussaint is gone (deceased as of November 2015), Dr. John is the heir-apparent and ambassador of New Orleans music.
One of my favorite pianists, also from New Orleans, is the late James Booker. I have a couple of his CDs, and this past September on my way to do a nearby revival service I was listening to one particularly enjoyable track entitled, “Junco Partner.” I first heard that piece from an earlier Dr. John recording. Booker, the son of a Baptist preacher, and who was as troubled, at odds with the world, and generally as spiritually lost a soul as anyone could imagine, was also one of the most talented, gifted, creative, and joyful players I have ever heard. I told a friend, “This is my idea of worship music.” The problem is, in that particular song, he is singing about going “down the road” with a drunk friend, who “knocked out loaded,” was “singing this song to me.”
Some Christians would wonder how I could make such a statement as “this is my idea of worship music,” considering that he is singing a drinking song. Well, back to Charles Wesley and “plundering the Egyptians” here. As Charles made use of drinking songs melodies as vehicles to drive his hymns, I seek to do the same (and especially the rhythms underneath them). Yes, I would happier if Booker were singing about going “down the road,” with, say, his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, but I find nonetheless beauty in his singing and playing not because of the subject matter, but because I sense the unmistakable genuine happiness and joy in his music, and because he conveys it with passion and integrity. I realize that intoxication or drug-inducement is perhaps the only way he knows to express how he feels. That, in my mind, is his loss and lack. But, ironically, he gives voice to his own joy—although perhaps a mistake—far-and- away better and more convincingly than many Christian musicians who are self-consciously and intentionally singing about Jesus. Christians seem to think that we should herald, applaud, and reward the musician who is playing badly simply because they are offering their praise to God.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I absolutely believe that a person not playing well while offering one’s heartfelt love and praise to God is applauded and appreciated by God, and should be. And I believe that we should appreciate and value them as well. However, I am also thinking about Psalm 33:3, which reads, “Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.” Whereas Dr. John and James Booker have the “play skillfully with a shout of joy” down pat, in my opinion, they have missed the object concerning to whom or to what they should be singing. On the other hand, Christians often (too often, if you ask me), while they actually do “Sing to Him a new song…with a shout of joy,” they also miss the “play skillfully” part, either in the doing of it, or the interpretation and assessment of it. Furthermore, because of the many religious/theological filters that get in the way of hearing the actual craft of truly creative innovation and invention, some will mislabel one’s music as Godless. I am thinking of the woman in my congregation who, in a face-to-face confrontation with me one Sunday morning, angrily referred to one of my songs as, “that mess you play in church.”
Christians have been misinterpreting the value of non-conventional, yet true, musical innovation forever, it seems to me. In Music History, particularly that which centered around the Cathedral at Notre Dame during the Middle Ages, a new form of music appeared: ars nova (the new art). It was known as “polyphony,” and composers were experimenting and having fun with its contrapuntal and harmonic implications. Pope John XXII took a dim view of it, however, and in 1324 issued this Papal Bull:
For five years I lived in the village of Singers Glen, VA (so-called because it is known as “the birthplace of sacred music in the South”) while pastoring the United Methodist Church there. A historian friend informed me that when Mennonite music publisher and educator, Joseph Funk (who is interred in Singers Glen) introduced in the 1800s part-singing to his congregational brothers and sisters, not a few of the “elders” of the church denounced it as “sensual” and “contributing to the loose morals of the youth.” This piece of Mennonite history is portrayed in a musical written by composer Alice Parker and performed every four years by volunteer singers and musicians from all over Rockingham County. A scene in the play, “Singers Glen,” captures the moment in which “the Bishop” cracks down on the young people who are singing, in part-harmony, the John Newton hymn, “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours (when Jesus I no longer see).” Some things never change. When jazz came onto the music scene in the 1920s, it, too, was scathingly labeled as the “Devil’s Music.” A couple of generations later In the 1950s, when disc jockey Alan Freed penned the words, “rock-and-roll,” and advocated for its airplay, that music form was condemned in pulpits all over America.
I think that the idea of “plundering the Egyptians” is legitimate and necessary. To hear and play music that captures the spontaneous expression of joy and freedom and other fruits of the Spirit, as well and the reckless abandon of one’s desire to inhibit and control human emotion, one often must travel outside and beyond the many walls, barriers, and other obstacles that are set in place to restrain it.
- Jim Radford
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