On great works of great faith

He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

This isn’t an easy verse.

Why, why is our faith so small? I’ve never moved a mountain; certainly even things I find rather more realistic are sometimes very difficult. I want to believe that nothing is impossible, but the balance of evidence seems to indicate that much is.

This verse seems to be saying “believe harder, have more faith, and things will work. And if they don’t work, well, you just aren’t believing hard enough!”

But I think that’s not the point. I think that’s something we read into the text.

I think faith is a gift, rather than an obligation. Oh, I’d make a rubbish Calvinist, to be sure. I don’t get on with the idea of predestination, and the implications I think it has for free will. But the Spirit blows where it will, and some are given great faith and others none at all, and I think it is a mistake to tell ourselves that we can believe harder and somehow force ourselves to have greater faith. Rather, greater faith is something we pray for, and accept if it is granted. I’m reminded of Psalm 80 — turn us again, O Lord, and we shall be saved — and of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened or softened by God.

What is actually required? Are we asked to have faith? Yes, actually. And the great works of great faith are held out, carrot-like. But we aren’t told that we must have faith so great that it can move mountains. We’re simply told to have faith in Christ, as a sort of extension of our faith in God. I say if we’re listening, if we are giving these words any weight at all, that in itself is already an act of faith, however miniscule. So stop berating yourself for not having enough faith. You are a flawed and marvelous human being, a beloved child of God, and you do not have to be perfect.

What else are we told is required of us?

Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself. These two are so important that Jesus says they are the basis of the entire Law and Prophets — the Law and Prophets being the bulk of Jewish biblical canon at the time. I try to do them and I fail every single day. It’s that “flawed human being” thing again.

What else?

Eat, drink. Do this in remembrance of me. Gladly, though it isn’t always easy.

Pray in this way.
I can just about handle this one, if what Jesus means is the formulaic pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, which I have known so long I cannot remember learning it. But that business of forgiving others is quite sticky.

Judge not. This, too, is non-trivial. I can but try.

Love one another as I have loved you. That’s a tall order; it applies to more than just washing one another’s feet. He tells us to love one another as he loves us and then he goes and gets himself crucified! We’re meant to follow the example. If this isn’t daunting I don’t know what is.

And yet…I have seen countless examples of what I can only call sacrificial love. I have heard the joy of judgments overturned, reconsidered. I have felt the warmth of forgiveness rising out of prayer and I have tasted sweet living remembrance, whether you want to call it sacrament or memorial, body and blood or bread and wine.

Are not all of these mountains moved?

Stuck in the middle with You

Various folks have blogged on David Cameron’s favourite Bible passage, and the comments that this is the “central message” of the Bible. I did enjoy Archdruid Eileen’s viewpoint.

I suppose it isn’t a definitive answer, but apparently someone asked Jesus what the central message of the Bible is. Or at least, the greatest commandment.

I shouldn’t like to argue.

Who do you say that I am?

Who is considered “Christian”? Why do any of us care?

Edward Green wrote an interesting post about the UCCF’s Doctrinal Basis, a sort of pseudo-creed which it seems is sometimes used as a litmus test of who is “in” and who is not at university Christian Unions.

Revd Green rightly points out that even the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a broader remit than that, stating that “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” I would agree that this is true, but I shy away from relying on the sacrament of baptism as a way of defining who is Christian, or rather, who is not.

The Salvation Army is one example of a non-sacramental movement that I would find difficult to classify as “not Christian”. There are also Christian Quakers, and Christian Unitarians, and all sorts of people from all walks of life who consider themselves Christian in the sense of trying to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth regardless of not sharing creedal beliefs. There are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses; I’ve lived with the former and been friends with the latter and I am not willing to call either group “not Christian” because of their divergences from the creed I give my heart to. Quite frankly, if someone believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster but also self-identifies as Christian I am willing to consider them Christian.

There are a few reasons I have this attitude. One is that I believe God is ultimately ineffable and limitless. This puts everyone in a bit of a pickle as it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about the nature of God without putting limits on God. If God is pink then God cannot be blue, but if God is limitless then God is both pink and blue. So while I am concerned with right belief, I try to sit lightly to it, if you will, remembering that we are all heretics.

Another reason is that the example Jesus set for us, if I am to believe scripture, points toward accepting others and treating them with respect and loving kindness regardless of their religious background. What is the point of my knowing what sort of Christian someone is? So often, this seems to be a case of trying not to associate with the “wrong” sort of people.

Sometimes this is out of a concern for sacramental purity: only baptised, confirmed Christians who have jumped through this hoop and that hoop are welcome at the Lord’s table, says the Church. We mustn’t “adulterate” the sacrament by allowing anyone who might have the wrong idea to try it for themselves, or by allowing anyone we aren’t quite sure about — sinners, gays, women — to preside at the Eucharist. I think this is incredibly sad; we are all heretics, remember? and I would say we are also all sinners! But Jesus ate with society’s outcasts and died as an outcast himself. He asked people to believe in him, but didn’t demand they believed before feeding them. I have better things to do than try to follow obscure rules about who I may or may not eat with.

Sometimes the purity concerns seem to be more along the lines of worry that someone will come along and infect us with wrong belief. I can understand this a little better. If you have a nice comforting belief and someone comes along and questions the premises, then of course it’s going to be unnerving. But scary and evil aren’t the same thing, and building isolating walls around our faith does two things: it puts the community at risk of stagnation and idiosyncracy, and it gives people leverage over us. Now, I do think that people in community should give one another power; we are accountable to each other, we live together on this interconnected planet where there is only one flesh we can wound. But I don’t think that power should extend as far as someone saying “Well, you aren’t really Christian if you believe that. You don’t belong here.”

At Greenbelt, I went to a talk by Mark Vernon on fundamentalisms and boundaries. He described the difference between bounded sets and centred sets by talking about ways of keeping herds of cattle together in Australia. There are basically two strategies: you can build a fence, or you can sink a well. Then in the rest of his talk he went on to talk about how some people seem to need boundaries, how without boundaries we can’t define what the church is or isn’t and cross those boundaries to reach — who? Other churches? the “unchurched”? I don’t quite remember, to be honest, because for the rest of the talk I was thinking “OK, but what happens if we just sink a well?”

Boundaries make us feel safe, right enough, whether that’s to do with purity of thought or purity of sacrament. It’s natural enough to want to associate with the “right” kind of people. But dividing the sheep and the goats by doctrinal fences isn’t, in the end, for us to do. The wheat and tares are not for us to sort out.

Instead we are told “by their fruits ye shall know them” and “love your neighbour as yourself”. I hope that if people classify me as Christian it is not because I go to church to pray, or because I regularly receive Communion, or because I happen to agree with them on matters of doctrine or liturgy. When someone tells me that they are Christian, I consider it a statement of intent, not a statement of adherence to some orthodoxy or another. I am not a theologian and some would say I lack the education to make such assumptions. Nevertheless, I hope that if people classify me as Christian, it is because of my attempts, however frail or flawed the results might be, to live in the world as an example of God’s love for the world.

Obligatory Rapture Post

First of all, I don’t really believe in this rapture stuff. I’ve mostly been ignoring it.

But, just for the record: if the “righteous” or the elect or whatever are taken up into Heaven and everyone else (atheists, heretics, sinners, quarrelers, people who like “Jerusalem” and so on and so forth) is left on earth to await some final judgement day, I’d rather stay here.

There’ll be a lot of work to do.

A Response to that "CCM praise songs we can’t stand" meme:

“There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident
that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a
man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices
his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and
coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the
erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

“The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and
patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot,
or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies
God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.
Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the
way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the
music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have
both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

“But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled
with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with
contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical,
complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look
with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on
all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all
that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the
Holy Ghost.”

– CS Lewis

In response to this meme.

As I’ve said in comments on Phil Ritchie’s blog, I do think that some modern music used in worship is pretty awful. So is some of the older stuff. But this isn’t really about “old” vs “new”; new music doesn’t need to replace more ancient offerings but can exist alongside it, with a bit of liturgical and musical sensitivity. I am definitely not a worship band kind of girl, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to include as many people as possible. In addition, there are some real theological and aesthetic bloopers among older music, too. Some of it has been sifted out through decades or centuries of persnickety musicians and clergy saying “no more” but some of it is remarkably persistent.

There are significant challenges to anyone trying to create new liturgical music. These include the passive, consumer-oriented nature of many people’s primary musical experiences today, the huge breadth of styles available in popular music (so that emulating one style really won’t make more than a fraction of listeners feel “at home”), the deplorable state of many church instruments (organs are the main things allowed to fall apart, but church pianos can be pretty horrendous too) and the expectation by many churchgoers of not having to engage with anything that doesn’t fit them exactly.

These challenges are real, but they are not insurmountable.

I believe:
  • people will always respond better to good music, performed well and with some liturgical sensitivity, than to bad music that is not in context
  • there is a lot of really good music, old and new, that people simply don’t know about because they only ever experience what happens at their local parish church or at larger gatherings where the music is chosen for familiarity
  • the fact that people are complaining about the music at all, in any capacity, shows that they care… there must be a way to harness this enthusiasm!
So I ask:

  1. What is your favourite piece of music for congregational singing? Why?
  2. What is your favourite piece of music for performance by a group of specialist musicians within a liturgical context? This might be a worship band or a cathedral choir or just a very snazzy organist or something else entirely, but the point is that it is not congregational singing and it is live music in liturgy.
  3. What is your favourite piece of music which makes you think about God to listen to outside of your place of worship? Why? This could be secular music.
  4. What is one thing you like about the music at your usual place of worship? Have you told the musicians about this lately?

The Singer and the Song

Maggi Dawn, looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation, asked some questions on Twitter this morning which got me thinking.

@maggidawn: The Message: do you love it or hate it? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of translation
@maggidawn: The King James Version: beautiful or incomprehensible? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation
@maggidawn: who have you read/listened to that has most influenced you on translation and interpretation of the Bible, tweeps?

I have very little familiarity with “The Message” as a paraphrase or translation, and my familiarity with the King James Version is by no means complete. But I am also acutely aware that my Hebrew is very poor and I don’t understand Greek at all. When I read the King James Version I think I understand the language fairly well, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. If we are going to have scripture available to everyone that means we will need to renew our translations and interpretations as our use of language changes. So I find a certain irony in the existence of groups which believe the King James Version is the only valid scripture, given the Reformation value of accessibility of the text — despite the situation surrounding the actual translation, which I understand was made with certain goals regarding the status quo in church and politics.

A few years ago I read various books by Karen Armstrong, and was struck by her repeated assertion that in many faiths there has at some point been a tradition of compassionate exegesis. That is, the “rules” are that any interpretation of scripture which is harmful, violent or cruel, is necessarily incorrect. That helped me a lot in coming to terms with a collection of texts which is often contradictory. Indeed, learning to see the Bible as an anthology rather than as one coherent book was also helpful.

As far as interpretation is concerned, there’s a great post by the Three Minute Theologian which illustrates the difficulty of scriptural literalism. A musical score contains a certain amount of information about which notes are to be played when, and if you’re lucky you get instructions about volume and articulation, too. But all of that must be interpreted in the context of the performance expectations of the time: in some periods there is a great deal that nobody bothered to write down because it was just the done thing, for example repeated phrases having some variation in dynamic. Debussy and Brahms are both composers who wrote a huge amount of what they wanted on the page, so that it is possible to follow their instructions exactly and get a half-decent musical result, but both still require a sense of line and direction, and the knowledge to interpret things like the time signature, which doesn’t only tell the performer how many beats there are in a bar but how they should be stressed in relation to one another. Bach left much more to the discretion of the performer. As I commented there, an historically accurate interpretation of music requires study of contemporary performance practice, but an informed contrast to that tradition of interpretation also requires some understanding of how the music would have been performed. Performers always end up interpreting, too.

What is important in the interpretation of music, in the end, is not how correctly one interprets the dots and squiggles, but the impact of doing so on the listener. A very historically authentic performance and one that departs drastically from traditional performance practice can both be moving and inspiring; it is likely that neither will consist only of what is written on the page. The creative interpretation of the performer or performers is an intrinsic part of the music, whether the performance consists of singing, blowing air through tubes, drawing a bow across stretched strings or even putting together instructions for robots to play the music (I refer to various forms of digital music, most of which are so far outside my own area of training as to be incomprehensible to me in their performance techniques).

I’m not a theologian, but I’ll go out on a limb here: I believe that how people present scripture in the way they live their lives is a more important interpretation issue than which translation or tradition of interpretation they might use to read it. That doesn’t apply only to Christianity, either. Actions speak louder than words and actions are more important than which words you read.

What do we say in our daily actions?

(edited slightly for clarity)