Dance of the Woolly Mammoths

My church, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, sings a lot of what I believe are called “camp meeting songs”. That’s the label I’ve most often heard put on the genre of American worship music that I mean: though there are outliers as late as the beginning of World War Two (like “Victory in Jesus”), most of the ones I’m talking about seem to belong to the half-century or so between the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s and the start of World War One in 1914. If that’s not the right label, I’d love to know what is.

My wife grew up singing these songs, and they are some of her favourite hymns. I didn’t, and I mostly can’t stand them.

The church where we worship is like her in that regard, not like me; we were both fed up to the point of disgusted with contemporary “intimate” worship and “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs when we started attending, and both wanted some traditional hymns.

Alas, our ideas of what constitutes “traditional hymns” diverges somewhat, and though we both take in things like “And Can It Be” and “Blessed Assurance” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “How Great Thou Art”, my definition of traditional hymns tends to stop short of the era in question.

I’m referring, of course, to the era of things like “Sunshine in my Soul” and “Love Lifted Me” and “When We All Get To Heaven” and all the songs of that ilk, that I struggle to find meaningful and whose music I cordially dislike.

My church loves these things, and they’re going to keep on singing them (nor should they stop just on my account). Leaving over musical differences would be incredibly petty, especially as it’s my problem, not anyone else’s. I’m not about to do something so foolish-seeming, particularly as the songs I don’t like seem to go hand in hand in US church culture with the hymns that I do. So I’ve been looking with increasing desperation for something I can like about them. Or at the very least, some rational reason for my irrational dislike.  What exactly is it that puts me off?

They do all share a certain set of features. The 6/8 time signature is fairly common, and I find that something about that in particular puts me off my stroke, but there are lots of other worship songs of that era that don’t have it, and I don’t like most of them, either. What they do all seem to share is what my wife calls “the walking rhythm”. It’s difficult to describe this in words, but it’s a sort of dompa-dompa-dompa-dompa that puts me in mind, not of people walking, but of woolly mammoths doing some sort of square dance.

Nothing can be done about my musical taste; in that sense it is an irrational dislike, and it doesn’t respond to reasoned argument. However, I find most of the lyrics at least as objectionable as the music, and that we can reason our way through. Why is it that I find this stuff so hard to like?

A great many of them are testimonial in nature. I was going to say that I always dislike testimonial songs, but that isn’t exactly true, because what’s “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” or “Long my imprisoned spirit lay” or “I will sing the wondrous story” if not testimonial? Truthfully, it’s not the testimonial form, it’s these testimonial songs.

The problem is that I tend to find the words rather trite. Simplistic, black-and-white answers for a question that I was never asking, using hackneyed Christianese that those of us raised in the faith had to wean ourselves away from for the sake of saying something intelligible to unbelievers. Who’d love something like that?

Probably everyone in my church except me, apparently. So why am I the oddball? What is it that they get that I don’t?

Maybe, I’ve started reasoning lately, it might help if I looked at the background of that time period of American history. What kind of spiritual and social conditions could produce “Sunshine in my Soul”, “There’s a New Name Written Down In Glory” or any of these other songs (including the legendary song that my Grandad likes to cite as an example of how not to do it: “Where’s My Lost Wandering Boy Tonight?”)? What was going on in America that moulded its hymnwriting into something that I do not emotionally grasp and find so incredibly hard to love?

I think I may be beginning to understand.

This period in my native Britain was the Victorian era. Well, and the Edwardian, but the tone was set by the reign of Queen Victoria. It was an era of industry, steam and factories, of increasing British dominance in world affairs and the advance of science and engineering. And it’s a period of increasing urbanisation. Charles Dickens wasn’t writing Oliver Twist about country life; it was the city, and the spiritual and social problems were those of the city.

By contrast, America was amazingly rural. The 1870s and 1880s was an era in which large sections of the America we know today were still being settled and relatively empty of ethnically white settlements. It’s the era portrayed by the cowboy movie, the era of How The West Was Won, of Indian massacres (I’m afraid I struggle to call any extermination campaign that viciously one-sided a “war”) and steam railroads and stagecoaches and cattle drives. Massive proportions of the population didn’t even live in the small towns that were being founded on an almost daily basis; they lived on farms or ranches at a distance from even their closest neighbours.

We’re dealing with rural people, living in what would be villages if they were in the UK, but without the presence of the ubiquitous parish churches of the other side of the Atlantic. When your town only got started a decade or so back, of course there was not going to be a parish church whose building was rebuilt in 1387. There might not be a church at all.

What I’m beginning to grasp is probably something that’s instinctive to any long-time American Christian: these are plain folk, and their music reflects that.

One might say “simple folk”, but simple has connotations of ignorance and stupidity, and even at best seems rather condescending. I honestly do not mean anything negative by it in this context.

Looking at the historical situation, what I’m seeing is a social setting in which most people didn’t have the access to education that I tend to take for granted. If Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novelised growing-up saga is at all typical of the times, we’re talking people who probably wouldn’t have much more than an elementary-school-equivalent education. They certainly weren’t stupid, or no more so than people who did have access to better education, just uncomplicated. Plain folk.

The songs of the era, these “camp meeting songs”, are the earnest expressions of simple people who’ve found that Jesus makes a real difference in their lives.

They sound like simplistic black-and-white before-and-after songs because that’s what they are. That’s where the people were at. If you’re in a rural American tent meeting because you know you need to get rid of the drink but you can’t do it yourself, you’re probably not going to have much time for elevated sentiments and deep theological truths set to music, but “I was blind but now I see” or “I was sinking deep in sin” or “There’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine” might be scratching where you itch.

I’m probably never going to love this music. For better or worse I’m an educated man, and my tastes are those of an educated man. That’s no better or worse than having the tastes of an uneducated man, it’s just different, by the way; but since I am an educated man, the simple, uncomplicated notes struck by most of these songs probably aren’t going to find a lot of deep personal resonance.

My musical taste, similarly, is what it is, and isn’t that amenable to being reasoned with. Try, as my other grandfather did, telling a child that hates peas that “they’re lovely” and that he’s being silly to not like them.

But though I’m probably not going to gravitate to the lyrics, nor particularly be enamoured of the music, I can appreciate the heart of them. I’d be the first to point out that just because it doesn’t match your experience doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; now I get to practice some of what I preach. Again. Who am I to say that just because my growing up with the faith in Britain didn’t look the way it’s portrayed in most of these songs that the faith behind them is somehow lesser? Unworthy? Rudimentary?

Of course it isn’t.

Still, I do continue to find the lyrics simplistic and the music mostly annoying. It’s a work-in-progress here; I’m still doing the research and trying to find out, still letting the understanding seep in.

I’m probably not going to wake up tomorrow just loving the Dance of the Woolly Mammoths. What I’m trying for, initially, is appreciation, and I think I’ve made a start.

Compromise Is Not A Dirty Word

Compromise.

Remember when it was considered a mostly positive thing?  A way to resolve differences without coming to blows, a recognition that the universe is imperfect and you’re probably not going to be able to have everything you want all at once.  That other people have things they want, too.

These days, it seems like any compromise is universally bad.  I hear radio advertisements beginning “I hate compromise”, like that’s a positive trait to be proud of.  We associate compromise with political double-dealing, with selling out your people or principles, with some sort of hypocrisy.  “I don’t compromise”, we proudly proclaim, meaning “I’m going all out for this”, whatever it is.  Black and white.  All or nothing.  My way or the highway.

I think we Christians began it.  I remember from my growing up how “no compromise” became a rallying-call among the evangelical, Bible-believing community to say “There are some things that aren’t negotiable”.  We believed ourselves under threat from the theologically liberal, secularising, politically-correct world, and the entire evangelical movement was a response to that sense of pressure.  A way to say, in effect, “we understand that sometimes you have to go along to get along, but there are some non-negotiables, beginning with the value of Scripture and the place of faith in our lives.”

These days, that list of non-negotiables seems to have become longer and longer.  My faith.  My interpretation of Scripture, even the questionable, tricky parts that we used to agree to disagree on.  My values.  My political beliefs.  My hopes for the future.  My way, my style, my fashion, my stuff, to the point where “No compromise” is being used to sell underwear to men.

Oh, it sounds rugged and manly to say “no compromise”, I’ll grant you.  A way to stick two fingers up to the world, prove your independence of spirit and general masculinity.  No-one tells me what to do.  Hooah!  I suppose that’s the point, if you’re an advertiser, but it seems to be rather missing it if you ask me.

The point is not that there aren’t non-negotiables.  We are human beings, and there really are things we value enough to say “no, I cannot bend on this point.”  That’s good and right; the basis of the ability to resist evil and stand up for what’s right.  In its best incarnation, it energises the true Christian martyr to be able to stare death in the face and refuse to deny the Lord no matter what kind of pressure is piled on.  We remember stories coming out from behind the Iron Curtain, and there are other stories today from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea.  Some things really are worth dying for.

It also energises the Godly resister, the agent of change in society.  All the William Wilberforces and Harriet Tubmans and others of that kidney, people who refused to bow to the majority when they knew the majority was wrong about an important issue.

The problem is that we keep adding things to the list of non-negotiable stuff.  If we’re at the point now that the selection of men’s underwear is on the list of things that we cannot compromise, then we are at the point of social anarchy because no-one can get along with anyone any more.

Non-negotiabiliy is a hierarchy.  At the top there are the true non-negotiables; the things it really is better to die than give up.  I don’t think anyone is seriously placing underwear in that category, but it’s symptomatic of the urge to keep enlarging the list.  Then we come down the list to the group of things that aren’t quite as important, but we really don’t want to give them up.  I’ll put myself through the inconvenience of a long commute in order to live somewhere that my children can get a good education, that sort of thing.  It’s not a single category, it’s a ranked scale.  How much inconvenience are we prepared to put ourselves through for this thing?

It’s here that the advertisers part company with reality.  To them, and I’m beginning to suspect to a lot of political activists on both sides of the great divide between parties, it’s not a case of putting yourself through inconvenience for something so much as a rigid determination to make other people bend around what you personally want.  Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this; it’s the reason politics is such a mess right now.  We all have a tendency to see everything in black and white, absolute evil or absolute good, “he who is not for us is against us”.  And while there are things that are like that, the reality is that sometimes “no compromise” is just code for “I want what I want and if I don’t get it I will sulk.  Or get angry.”

Either way, it’s a little… petulant, sometimes.  Depending on what we’re currently claiming as being of such vital importance that any attempt to meet the other side halfway is wrong and evil, it might be good or it might be a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.

I’m not going to tell you what your core value non-negotiables ought to be.  I recognise that there are issues of black-and-white ethical division, things it’s worth dying for and things it’s worth self-sacrifice for.  I’m also aware that the lists aren’t going to be precisely the same for everyone.  Justice is a big deal for me; situations in which justice cannot be done for some reason anger me.  But I have friends who aren’t quite so hot on the subject of justice but who will spend themselves to the last penny for mercy.  Different values, but both of us valuing good things.

This is why we have different political parties to begin with.  Not everyone values every good thing equally, and sometimes the reality of the world is that to get one thing right you have to accept getting other things less right.  Parties are by nature a compromise, a collaboration of multiple people with a whole gamut of functioning core values, but who unify around a specific set of ideals.  Most people aren’t going to hold all of those ideals equally; indeed, in the monochromatic US political landscape there are probably a huge majority of people who vote for one or the other party for a short list of reasons and can’t stand other aspects of the party platform.

We make that sort of compromise all the time, but then we go into black-and-white, non-negotiable mode when it comes to the other party.  Many of whom may very well not like aspects of their party’s stated platform, but who feel like certain other aspects of which are sufficiently important to them that they are prepared to put up with the junk.  I suspect that if we actually listened to people on the other side, we might find that we have more in common than we thought.

And by “listen”, I don’t mean “listen while maintaining a checklist of points on which they are wrong so we can argue with them”.  I mean actually listen.  Assume that there is a valid reason for why they support what they do; it’s not “because I’m eeeeeviiiiiiil!!!!!!!!!!!”  It’s not “I’m just retarded and believe something I ought to know isn’t true”.  We need to rediscover the art of withholding judgement in order to dig a little.  Discover the why.  What’s important about that thing you’re supporting?  What value led you to support something I have problems with?  Not listening to condemn, but listening to understand.

Compromise.  There really are still things that we don’t actually need to get our own way on.  Oh, it’s nice when we can, but we should not use “no compromise” as an excuse to pout when things don’t go the way we want.

And I’m looking at both liberals and conservatives when I say that.  You’re both as bad as each other at this.  You conservatives think you understand why liberals believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  You liberals think you understand why conservatives believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  Neither of you are going to get everything you want, because the reality of the situation is more complex than can be encapsulated in a single sentence.  Nor even a paragraph.  We really do have to decide that we can flex on some things; rigid inability to compromise on a single iota isn’t doing anyone any good.

Enough tearing ourselves apart, enough using “no compromise” as an excuse to try and force the other guy to give in to your demands.  This isn’t a hostage situation, and you aren’t the kidnapper.

We’ve just come through the Christmas season, and I should point out that even my five-year-old understands the difference between a wish list and a demand list.  It seems that sometimes, as we grow up, we lose that simple wisdom.

Maybe it’d be a good idea to try and regain it.

Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.