Toward a More Beautiful Music

Over the summer, I was blown away when I listened to Ken Myers’s Epiphany Lectures at New St. Andrews College. (Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve been blown away by Ken Myers lectures. Both times, I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in the subject, but once I heard the lectures they significantly changed the way I think about the world. The first time I heard him speak was when he gave a lecture at the Torrey Honors Institute in which he turned me onto CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book which is easily one of the most influential in my system of thinking.) In these lectures, entitled “Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning,” Myers lays out the beginnings of an argument for recovering a view of music as objectively good, true, and beautiful. Music has meaning and reflects the world more or less accurately depending on the quality of the music. That is to say, there is such a thing as good music, independent of cultural norms and personal preference. (To be sure, culture and personal preference play an important role in our interaction with music, but they are not the ultimate arbiters of what is good music.) Learning to discern good music from bad is a skill, and it takes training and practice. This is a view which has largely been abandoned in our culture, but it is a biblical view and one which would work wonders for the life of the church if it were recovered by Christians on a large scale. While Myers’s lectures are not exclusively concerned with church music and music in worship, the argument has direct implications for those subjects. The music with which we worship God should be music which is objectively good, true, and beautiful. Sadly, this is not the case in many instances of musical worship today.

Now, what I am going to say is likely to make people angry, so I will try to be as clear as possible in order to avoid unnecessarily stepping on anyone’s toes. I am not saying that contemporary worship music is comprehensively bad. I am not saying that worship experiences including contemporary worship music are invalid, inauthentic, incomplete, or deficient. I am not questioning the motives or intentions of the writers, performers, leaders, or singers of contemporary worship music. I do not doubt that many people worship God with contemporary worship songs, and I do not want to take anything away from their experiences. In fact, I do not have anything against contemporary worship music in as much as it is contemporary. There is a lot of contemporary worship music which is very good. I would much prefer a good contemporary song to a mediocre traditional song. However, I would argue that there is a fair amount of contemporary worship music which is “trite and superficial,” to quote Douglas Wilson in this Credenda/Agenda exchange with Jeffrey Ventrella.

Let me reiterate: in making this claim, I am not trying to invalidate or disparage anyone’s worship experiences, even if those experiences include music which I would consider trite and superficial. This is an objective critique of music, something which is public and corporate, not of anyone’s personal intentions or experiences. Establishing my claim that there is a lot of trite and superficial contemporary worship music is a project which I will not attempt at this time. I believe it could be established, but doing so would require extensive work to recover, develop, and apply the view of music argued for by Myers in the lectures cited above. This is important work which needs to be done, but more important than establishing the fact that there is bad music out there is establishing the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music. Further, it is more important to work toward the creation of good music and the cultivation of musical ability and discernment in the church than it is to ruminate on how bad some contemporary music is. It is my prayer that we will see a new blossoming of beautiful music in the church. Soli Deo Gloria.

[What follows is a collection of methodological observations about the exchange between Wilson and Ventrella in the Credenda/Agenda article linked to above.]

Wilson is, I believe, making an argument similar to that which I made in the previous paragraph. He is keen to establish the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music and to encourage us to advocate for good music to be used in worship. However, Ventrella insists on keeping the discussion aggressively technical and antagonistic, with the result that very little is actually said or accomplished in the discussion. He uncharitably exaggerates Wilson’s statements and focuses on details of what Wilson says to the exclusion of the larger point Wilson is trying to make. Wilson is trying to propose the need for a more fully-orbed biblical aesthetic to be developed. Ventrella says that Wilson’s argument has failed because Wilson has not already completed the project he is proposing. Ventrella neither tries to understand and clarify Wilson’s position nor proposes an alternative. Rather, Ventrella attacks aggressively, preventing the discussion from moving forward. The only point that Ventrella seems to be advocating is that Wilson is an incoherent deceiver trying to enforce his own preferences as absolutes. Ventrella’s style may be appropriate for the courtroom, but it is counterproductive for a charitable exchange between two Christian bothers trying to come to a fuller understanding of the truth.

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Not What My Hands Have Done

A beautiful hymn we sing periodically at church:

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.

Your voice alone, O Lord, can speak to me of grace;
Your power alone, O Son of God, can all my sin erase.
No other work but Yours, no other blood will do;
No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free.

I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my joy and light.
’Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.

[Words by Horatius Bonar; text taken from cyberhymnal.org]

Health Disparities: One Approach to Causes and Solutions

The concept of health disparities is a topic which deeply concerns me. Nailing down a definition of health disparities is a little difficult, but, in essence, it’s the idea that different people groups (regional groups, ethnic groups, cultural groups, socioeconomic groups, etc.) experience diseases and illnesses at different rates. There are a number of factors that contribute to these disparities, some biological, some psychological/spiritual, some social. It seems to me that, inasmuch as these disparities are preventable, we should prevent them. (The ethics of this statement deserve their own fleshing-out, but I’ll save that for another post).

Right now, I would like to comment on a few statements made in the documentary series Unnatural Causes, which, on the whole, I would recommend. It does a fairly good job presenting problems and raising questions, even if the answers it offers might not be the the ones I would give. I will start with one comment, since I’ll never actually get around to this if I try to do everything at once.

At one point in the first episode (transcript here), the documentary discusses the relative paucity of grocery stores that offer fresh foods (compared to abundant fast-food chains) in low-income areas. This limits the availability of healthier foods for low-income families. To me, this does seem like a problem. However, this is the explanation offered:

It’s not the design of nature that these environments are going to be different. They arise as a result of policies or the absence of policies that create these enormous inequalities and resources.

The suggestion is that governmental policies (presumably zoning laws and the like) or the lack of such policies are the cause of the unavailability of healthier foods for poorer people. I would like to examine the logic of this statement by drawing an analogy to a statement made earlier in the documentary.

Earlier, this statement is made regarding the many and varied causes of illness and disease:

Health care can deal with the diseases and illnesses. But a lack of health care is not the cause of illness and disease. It is like saying that since aspirin cures a fever that the lack of aspirin must be the cause of the fever.

The lack of health care does not cause disease. In the same way, I would argue that the lack of governmental policies cannot cause grocery stores to avoid certain neighborhoods. Sure, governmental policies might be one way to fix the problem (not necessarily the solution I would prefer), but a lack of policies is not the cause of the problem.

There is a tendency to look to the government to solve every problem encountered which is pervasive in the discussion of health disparities. Personally, I would like to see a theological engagement with health disparities with an emphasis on how the church can become involved in solving problems of health disparities. It seems to me that health care is, at its core, a ministerial endeavor, and the church should be (and historically has been) intimately involved in medicine.

Blessed the man that fears Jehovah

In light of today’s sermon at Branch of Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church, here’s the musical setting of Psalm 128 included in the Trinity Psalter (sung to the tune of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”):

1. Blessed the man that fears Jehovah
And that walketh in His ways.
Thou shalt eat of thy hands’ labor;
And be prospered all thy days.

2. Like a vine with fruit abounding
In thy house thy wife is found
And like olive plants, thy children
Compassing thy table ’round

3. Lo, on him that fears Jehovah
Shall this blessedness attend
For Jehovah, out of Zion,
Shall to thee His blessings send

4. Thou shalt see Jerus’lem prosper
All thy days ’til life shall cease
Thou shalt see thy children’s children
Unto Israel be peace.

Latest BCP/Horner Bible Reading Update

Here is the latest version of our Bible reading plan (see the original here, and the first update here). The biggest change is that we’ve added a Proverbs reading to each morning and evening. Enjoy!

BCP-Horner Bible Reading Plan – v4.4

Reflections on Medical Ethics

The following is an assignment from my Medicine and Ethics class at Loma Linda University.

My Medical Ethic

Ethical questions are often difficult to resolve, and the ethical issues involved in medicine present some of the toughest ethical situations to address. There are many different opinions about what is the correct ethical decision in any given medical situation, but these differences of opinion reflect deeper differences: differences of worldview. A person’s worldview consists of his presuppositions about the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we know reality (epistemology), and how we ought to relate to reality (ethics). When two people start with different presuppositions about reality, different worldviews, it is not surprising when they come to different ethical conclusions.

As a Christian, my worldview and presuppositions come from the Bible. There can only be one ultimate source and standard of truth in general, and ethical truth in particular, by which all claims and actions must be evaluated. If we start making ethical judgments based upon what “seems right” or “makes good sense” to us instead of based upon what God has revealed in his word, we have placed our own human reason as a higher authority than God’s word. Human reason is fallen and utterly insufficient to the task of ultimate ethical authority and reasoning.[1]

However, that is not to say that human reason and situational considerations are irrelevant in ethical decision making. The Lord who reveals himself in his word is equally the Lord of the world and our minds. As Christians are transformed more and more by the renewal of our minds to conform to the image of Christ, we are more able to discern the will of God in our ethical decisions.[2] In the end, what is revealed in the Bible will cohere perfectly with properly functioning human reason and with what we find in the world.

On the whole, then, I am advocating a divine command theory of ethics, with the clarification that what is commanded cannot arbitrarily change, since God’s law is an expression and outworking of his own perfect, eternal, and unchangeable character. Ethical behavior is perfect conformity to the law of God. The crux of God’s law is the love of God and neighbor,[3] but we must look to the Bible to determine what that love looks like; we cannot use our own abstract definition of love, or else we would be once again subjugating God’s word to our own reason. We look to God’s law to find out how to love God and our neighbors.[4]

There are several broad principles which can be derived from Scripture concerning medical ethics in particular. The most overarching ethical principle governing medical ethics is the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.”[5] In addition to the proscription of the taking of innocent human life, this commandment encompasses several other more specific ideas. The rationale given earlier in Scripture for this commandment is that men are made in the image of God, and, therefore, every human life is sacred and has intrinsic value.[6] Here we have the concept of the sanctity of life, from which can be derived the well-known concept of non-maleficence. The robust application of the sixth commandment, though, goes beyond proscription of harm to the prescription of preserving life and minimizing suffering, an idea corresponding to the concept of beneficence. We can see this clearly illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.[7]

One final principle which is worth addressing in the context of medical ethics is that of the patient’s autonomy. While we can protect some of the main concerns of the principle of autonomy by acknowledging that no physician save Jesus has the right to impose a treatment by force, it seems to me that we must reject the language of autonomy itself. Humans are God’s creatures, and, as such, we are subject to his authority and responsible to him.[8] Competent persons should have the right to make their own medical decisions, insofar as their decisions are in conformity with the law of God, an authority which is higher than the person’s own desires. In the case of incompetent persons, it seems to me that family and church authorities should have a significant say in a patient’s medical decisions.

For an example of how these ethical principles might be applied, let us examine the case of Matthew Donnelly. The most ethically salient facts of his case are as follows: (1) he was terminally ill with no hope of recovery, (2) he was in constant and intense pain, (3) under the current treatment plan, he was expected to remain in this condition for about a year before he would die, (4) he desired to die, and he expressed this desire to his brother Harold, (5) Harold retrieved a gun and consumed alcohol with the intention of becoming inebriated, and presumably with the intention of killing his brother, and (6) Harold shot Matthew, killing him violently. An additional fact, although it is more of an inference, is that (7) there was a lack of discussion and consideration of other options for Matthew’s care, both with family and with doctors.

In this case, the relevant ethical principles are (A) the intrinsic value of Matthew’s life (the sanctity of life), (B) the scriptural proscription of taking or harming life (non-maleficence), (C) the scriptural prescription of doing good for others (beneficence), and (D) the extent to which Matthew’s desires expressed a competent fulfillment of responsibility to God.

On the one hand, one could argue that Harold was justified in taking Matthew’s life, for the following reasons. First, that was Matthew’s autonomous desire. Second, ending Matthew’s life ended his physical suffering, which could be an expression of minimizing harm as well as doing good for Matthew. One could argue that a sophisticated view of beneficence includes more than simply prolonging life at all costs; the whole person must be taken into account. However, I reject these arguments. In the first place, one does not have the right to desire one’s own death in order to have relief from suffering, since this is contrary to God’s law.[9] A patient’s right to make his own medical decisions only applies to decisions which are in conformity with the law of God. In the second place, while I agree that beneficence includes more than simply prolonging life at all costs, I believe it also includes more than ending pain at all costs; it seems to me that there is even a positive role that unavoidable suffering can play in the life of a Christian.[10] It seems that a better solution to Matthew’s situation would be to increase his pain management to be more aggressive and to discontinue other treatments such as radical and invasive surgeries, thereby letting Matthew die as comfortably as possible without actively killing him.


[1] Romans 1:18ff., especially v. 21.

[2] Romans 12:2, 8:29.

[3] Matthew 22:34-40.

[4] In keeping with Reformed tradition, I hold that the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments, so that is a good place to begin looking for ethical principles. However, all of Scripture is normative, and we must carefully navigate the whole counsel of God in making our ethical decisions.

[5] Exodus 20:13 (ESV).

[6] Genesis 9:6.

[7] Luke 10:25-37.

[8] See 1 Corinthians 6:19ff., for example.

[9] “Scripture always presents mercy killing negatively. Consider the following. (a) People in the Bible who either killed themselves or who sought to have themselves killed to avoid suffering are always seen as disobedient (Judges 9:54-57; 1 Sam. 31:3-6; 2 Sam. 1:9-16; 17:23; 1 Kings 16:15-19; Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18). (b) The command against murder includes murder of the self; suicide contradicts the legitimate self-love that Scripture assumes and commands (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:28). (c) Suffering does not render a life meaningless or valueless (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:11-18 and chapters 11 and 12). (d) Our lives are not our own; they are not at our own disposal (1 Cor. 6:19f.; 7:4).” (John M. Frame, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1988, p. 69.)

[10] See Romans 5:3, 2 Timothy 2:3, and 1 Peter 2-4, for a few examples off the top of my head. Christians are expected to suffer; while we should mitigate suffering if we can, suffering is not the ultimate evil and does not justify the taking of life.

Double Chiasm in Galatians 2? Perhaps…

Rick and I were discussing the structure of Galatians 2 in light of a blog post by Peter Leithart here. I adopted the slightly re-worked translation of v.16 from that post along with some slight changes which I think are merited in each case. For example, the ESV’s triple redundancy of “believing in Christ” in parts E, F and E’ is too much for me to swallow. I also prefer to use “Torah” instead of “law”, because it focuses the reader into what I think Paul is talking about, namely, the Mosaic administration of the Covenant of Grace. Also, where Paul uses the Greek word for “flesh” I think it should always be translated “flesh” because of the rich contextual meaning which is stuffed into that word in Paul’s writings as a whole and in this letter in particular.

I have laid out what I believe to be a particularly neat chiastic structure in verses 14b-18, and possibly 18-21 below.

A: If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew,

B: how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?

C: We ourselves are Jews by nature and not “Gentile sinners”

D: yet we know that the “man of the works of Torah” is not justified

E: except through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,

F: so we also have believed in Christ Jesus,

E’: in order to be justified by the faithfulness of Christ

D’: and not by works of Torah, because by works of Torah no flesh will be justified.

C’: But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be “sinners”, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!

B’: For if I rebuild what I tore down,

A’: I prove myself to be a transgressor.

Explanation:

A/A’: Peter proves himself to be a “transgressor” (A’) in his initial “[tearing] down” of the Torah regulations when he “though a Jew, lived like a Gentile” (A)

B/B’: Then Peter, out of fear, “rebuilt” (B’) Torah regulations relating to his table fellowship with Gentile Christians, when he forced them to “live like Jews” (B).

C/C’: The key word here is “sinners”. In a Christ-ministered justification, both “Jews by nature” and “Gentile sinners” (C) are shown to be “sinners” (C’) in need of the grace of God. In Galatians language, is Christ a “minister of sin”? By no means! (See Romans for a detailed analysis of this particular question, though with slightly different context and wording!)

D/D’: A “man of the works of the Torah” (D) would mean, especially in context, a circumcised-in-the-flesh man, i.e. a Jew,  will not be justified by virtue of that status. Because, no “flesh” will be justified by “works of the Torah”. Fleshly circumcision is of no value in the courtroom of God, being a “man of the works of the Torah” is not how God intends to justify His people.

E/E’: Justification through/by the faithfulness of Christ.

F: The real crux of the whole section is that justification is by believing in Jesus!

 

At the functional end of the first chiasm, a new one sprouts!

 

 

A: a) For if I rebuilt what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. b) For through the Torah I died to the Torah that I might live to God.

B:  I have been crucified with Christ.

C: a) It is no longer I who live, b) but Christ who lives in me.

C’: a) And the life I now live in the flesh b) I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God,

B’: who loved me and gave himself for me.

A’: a) I do not nullify the grace of God, b) for if justification were through the Torah, then Christ died for no purpose.

A/A’: If you rebuild what you tore down, you nullify the grace of God! (A/A’ a)). The key word in b) is “through”. Through the Torah there is no justification, but there is death. We die to the Torah, and the purpose is so that we can live to God (A b)) If justification was through the Torah, then Christ’s death was “for no purpose” (A’ b)), instead of having the purpose of “[living] to God”. If

B/B’: To be “crucified with Christ” is the “reason” that the atonement is effective for believers. Only by being “in Christ” can we “impute ourselves dead to sin” because we are united with Him in His death on the cross. In other words, the expression of His faithfulness, of his great love is His giving of Himself for me in crucifixion, was so that I can be crucified with Him, and reckon myself dead to the Torah of sin and death and alive in the Spirit of life and righteousness.

C/C’: The life that Paul lives “in the flesh”, i.e. as a Jew, (C’ a) is not his own life (no boasting in the flesh), because that fleshly identity was already crucified with Christ (C a)). His life is rather Christ’s life, i.e. resurrection/new creation life (C b)), which is only possible, or is summarily comprehended as, the “faithfulness of the Son of God” (C’ b)) even unto the death of the cross, that God would exalt Him in resurrection and ascension.

 

If you have any nitpicks or serious issues with this structural breakdown, let me know. I would love the input. I am a little shaky in how Paul structures the second section (or if it is legitimate to have the first section bounded how I have it here!).

Your comments and corrections are appreciated.