Monday 30 August 2010

Music & Life

Professor Jeremy Begbie is one of a small number of Christian writers who manages to successfully bring together deep theological insight, extensive knowledge of music and skill and love of performance. What results is an insight into the role of music for life that is very challenging.

In a recent publication written for Case magazine - 'Polyphony of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer' - Professor Jeremy Begbie examines the role of music in Bonhoeffer's writings. He argues that Bonhoeffer thought in musical categories, and that his theological reflections were a result of this. One instance he cites relates to Bonhoeffer’s idea that the Christian life is ‘polyphonic’, where God’s love provides a central theme around which the ‘other melodies of life’—joy, sorrow, freedom, fear—provide counterpoints.

Begbie writes:
"Bonhoeffer left us with no essay or book on music. Nonetheless, references to music and the other arts are scattered through his writings. He could bemoan the Nazis’ demonic use of the Romantic German tradition (Beethoven, Wagner and others); he could speak of some music (e.g. Bach) as appropriate to the Church and other music as better left outside (the Romantic tradition); he could warn of music’s dangerous power to distract us from God’s Word; he could allude to hymn-singing serving the struggle for freedom (“only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants”); and his discovery of African-American spirituals in the United States affected him deeply. But it was during his last years, especially in his 'Letters and Papers from Prison', that music comes into its own, as he struggles with the question of who Jesus Christ is for us today and what it means to be the Church in the world.

"Here he has no radio or gramophone. He only has music in his mind, or the music heard distantly in and beyond the prison; at one point he remarks that “the music we hear inwardly can almost surpass, if we really concentrate on it, what we hear physically”.
Begbie's many insights concerning music deserve further study and reflection. This year he will be in Sydney to deliver three public lectures. Why don't you join us?

New College Lectures (14-16 September 2010)

The 2010 New College Lectures (14-16 Sept) will feature Prof Jeremy Begbie delivering three performance lectures in a series titled 'Music Modernity and God. He writes of the lectures:
'Scarcely a day goes by when we are not surrounded by music: it is pervasive. But what we can easily overlook is the part music has played in the debates surrounding the pivotal issues that have shaped our culture, issues that at their deepest level concern belief in God.'
In this series of lectures that will include performance and recordings, Professor Begbie will explore how music can enable us to ‘read’ our culture with the eyes of Christian faith and respond in fresh ways to some of the deepest dilemmas of our time. There will be three free performance lectures:

Creativity–Can we be creative in a world made by God? (14th Sept)

Human creativity is often seen as merely a matter of bringing order to the physical world. Creativity and discovery are assumed to work against each other. The roots of this assumption will be explored before examining some of the music of J.S. Bach in order to open up a fuller, Trinitarian vision in which discovery is integral to all human making.

Freedom – Can we be free with God in our space? (15th Sept)

It has been said that the quest for freedom defines the modern age. And it is often assumed that the more God is involved in our lives, the less freedom we have. In this lecture, Jeremy Begbie will show that ‘musical space’ can help us develop a far more biblical account of human freedom and discover that God is not freedom’s enemy.

Language – Can we speak about God without words? (16th Sept)

While language is powerful, many point to its severe limits. This lecture explores the ways music has been caught up in the debate about the power and limits of language. Many say music can ‘transcend’ words. What place is there for music in a faith that depends on God using human words to make himself known?

Full Details available from the New College website (HERE)

Monday 23 August 2010

Seeking a better understanding of work

We are just about to publish Case #24. Case is the quarterly apologetics magazine from CASE. This issue will explore a range of questions. It is framed by the broad question, what do we understand about work? Do we see it just as an inconvenient separation between our weekends? A way to earn money for life? Something you do when you can't be in 'full-time' ministry? A result of the curse that we need to endure?

Justin Taylor has suggested that many Christians have a 'sub-biblical view of work' (see previous post). He goes on to suggest that we need to:
'..recover the reformational understanding of vocation: all of life—in every sphere and in every calling—should be lived to the glory of God and in obedience to his Word.'
John Piper in his excellent book ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’ also suggests that we need a better biblical understanding of the place of work in our lives. He suggests that if we want to glorify God in our work, that our focus shouldn’t be on 'where [we] work, but how and why' we work. His challenge is 'how can I can make my life count for the glory of God' whether in Christian ministry, paid secular work or unpaid work in the home and community?

Dorothy Sayers almost 60 years ago said something similar:

'…work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do'.

But while some of us place too low a value on work, others perhaps overestimate its significance to life. Non-Christian philosopher Alain de Botton in ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ reviewed in Case  #24, argues like many Christian writers that we do. He suggests that while all societies have placed work at the centre of their activities, 'our’s is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance.'

We work he argues even in the absence of a financial imperative.
'Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.' (p. 106).
In Case #24 our varied writers contribute some fascinating perspectives on the topic.

Gordon Preece in our lead article considers the tricky notion of ‘calling’. To address the question ’Does God call people to particular jobs?’ he outlines a Trinitarian model of ‘calling’ and argues that our first focus must be on our call to God’s kingdom. After that, where and how we are to work is an area of ‘freedom in limitation’.

Andrew Laird, drawing on the work of Darrell Cosden, approaches the topic of work from the perspective of the value and meaning it has for the world we live in. He points out that we contribute daily to the order and running of this world in our work, and in so doing, reflect what God did in creation by bringing order to chaos. Laird brings additional insights to Cosden’s work suggesting that all work is to be part of the expression of our worship of God, including rest from our work.

Complementing this approach, Mark Stephens addresses the question of work in eschatological terms and sets out to evaluate the idea that work is of value not just as participation in God’s creation, but as it relates to the ultimate completion of creation. Unpacking Revelation 18 and 21, he explores the possibility that some aspects of human culture may find a place in the new creation: an eschatological city that takes account of the works of man.

Nicole Starling provides a specific illustration of how diverse work is, with a type of work undervalued by society - being a stay-at-home mother. She argues that the paid career shouldn’t be seen as the only type of socially productive work. When a woman chooses to become a full-time stay-at-home mother and wife, she demonstrates three attractive counter-cultural lifestyles that are a powerful apologetic. Caring for a family, and the many other forms of service this permits, are valuable social goods. The worth of the work done at home exceeds the social status given to it and so those making this choice demonstrate a freedom from social status and consumption. Finally, stay-at-home mothers show that their decision to work in the home reflects a “deep and secure sense of… identity as children of God”.

Dani Scarratt also revisits the insights of Sayers and C.S. Lewis on ‘good work’ in our first ‘Case History’, an occasional segment which seeks to unearth the wisdom of Christian writers from the past for the benefit of Christians today.

To complete our issue Andrew Baartz reviews 'The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission' and Georgina Barratt-See reviews de Botton's ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Australia Votes - Compare the policies

Australians will vote in the Federal election on the 21st August.  I wrote in my last post (here) about the Checklist that the Australian Christian Values Institute has developed to compare the major parties contesting the election. I was critical of the checklist because:
  • It is simplistic and reductionist
  • It omits many policy areas of significance
  • The assessment of the parties seems to be arbitrary and inaccurate

A more useful tool is the website that has been created by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

The site is called 'Australia Votes' and attempts to compare the key policies of the major and minor parties. The greatest advantage of this site is that it simply presents parallel information from the various parties in key areas; for example:

  • Homelessness and housing affordability
  • School Funding
  • Access to assisted reproductive technology (ART), IVF and surrogacy for singles and same sex couples
  • Climate change
  • Freedom of religion

Of course, you will still need to sift through the words of the parties to make a judgment about what they are planning to do (and there is plenty of 'spin'), but the advantage of this resource is that you can assess the policies of the parties for yourself.

Other resources & links

'Dispelling Myths About 'Boat People' HERE
'How Should a Christian Vote' Michael Jensen (& John Dickson) HERE

Thursday 5 August 2010

How Should Christians Vote in 2010?

The Australian Christian Values Institute has just published a checklist for assessing the major political parties contesting the Federal election on the 21st August. Checklists of this type have been appearing regularly just before Federal elections for some time. The 'Australian Christian Values Checklist' is used widely by the Christian Democratic Party in its campaigning and is supported by a number of other small organizations.

It is argued by some that there is merit in such a checklist and its desire to compare major parties on a basket of 'Christian Values'. Many Christians struggle to decide who to vote for in any election.  But is this checklist helpful? I don't think so. There are a few reasons.

First, the whole approach is simplistic and reductionist in nature. It is based on the assumption that you can distil what matters most for Christians from a party's policies to a set of values, and that these can be assessed for each party in a fair and equitable way. There is little evidence to suggest that this has been achieved.

Second, the checklist omits many areas that for any Christian should be of concern.  For example, treatment of the homeless, poor, aged, disabled, mentally ill and aliens. While the Australian Christian Values Institute argues (here) that they don't include such issues because there is little difference between the parties on such issues, no real evidence is given to support this claim. To be fair, they also suggest that they focus on the values that they do because they believe that these are the values for which there is a defining difference between the parties. There is some truth in this and I see value in encouraging each other to consider the issues which other parties fail to mention for fear of voter backlash, and those that might be abhorrent to most Christians which might just make it difficult to vote for a party even if their other policies you find acceptable (for example, support for euthanasia).

Third, the creation of a list of this kind presents a view of Christian concern for the world that is a pale shadow of the picture of the concerned, engaged life of the citizen that the Bible presents.  

Fourth, the way the parties are assessed seems rather arbitrary, especially when the question mark is used (with the tick and the cross) for some values, suggesting a degree of uncertainty.

What's missing?

There are a wide range of Christian values that should be included if one is to try to provide a more comprehensive assessment of key issues that should influence our votes. For example:
It doesn't mention the need to support the aged, the homeless and the poor.
It fails to address the call to welcome the alien (see my previous post on 'Boat People').
It omits the need for justice for Indigenous Australians.
It overlooks inequities in health funding and educational provision for isolated communities.
It fails to mention the need to help starving and strife torn nations and those threatened by climate change through foreign aid.
It overlooks care of the disabled and the mentally ill.

What does it conclude?

The checklist concludes that we should all vote for the minor Christian parties. Three parties score almost perfectly on all 23 Christian Values - the Christian Democratic Party, Family First and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The Greens Party scores a tick on just one item, 'supporting greater care of God's environment' (but all 7 parties are given ticks on this!). The Labor Party scores just three ticks, and two of these are also given a question mark. The Liberal Party scores 14 ticks (2 with question marks) and the National Party 15 ticks (two with a question mark).

It is difficult to see this as a fair assessment of the parties. To suggest that all seven parties have equal concern for the environment is at best misleading and probably dishonest. There also seem to be many other gross simplifications in the way the parties are assessed. As well, the checklist includes some items that are policy commitments of the minor Christian parties and presents them as 'Christian Values'. For example, suggesting that support for 'educational vouchers' as a Christian value is difficult to justify. It may well be a worthwhile policy agenda that people who send their children to private schools would support, but it is hardly a defining value that should significantly shift our vote.

What is disappointing about the list is that in presenting such an incomplete and flawed list, it might inadvertently deflect attention away from issues that Christians should be concerned about and campaign for.  In taking such limited view of 'Christian Values' it might well lead many Christians to dismiss the checklist without properly considering areas of policy in the major parties that should concern us. For example, The Greens while the key party on the environment, support many policies on the family, abortion and end of life that few Christians would find acceptable. Issues like preservation of marriage, support for families, opposition to abortion and euthanasia, rather than being considered as issues by Christians, might be ignored as some Christians reject the limited nature of the overall assessment of policies.

How should Christians vote?

I believe that it is possible for Christians to vote for different political parties and for different reasons, with a clear conscience. I do not believe that we can use a checklist to establish which party should get our vote, although it might well help us if we can be sure of its accuracy. I also do not believe that we should vote for a party, or even a local politician, just because they say that they are Christian. Mind you character should be at the top of our list, but Christian politicians can be found wanting in relation to character just like some of the non-Christian politicians. It's important to know a lot about the people we vote for; do we want them to lead us?

As well, some Christians will feel so strongly about a single issue such as euthanasia or abortion that they will vote for one local representative over another, or one party over another - I don't usually vote this way, but it's a legitimate response. However, we should never vote out of self-interest, we should seek the good of others. In a recent article Michael Jensen helpfully suggested the following five factors that should inform our vote:
We should vote for the sake of others - honouring one another above self
We should seek righteousness and justice in our community.
We should vote for the poor and the weak.
For freedom to preach the gospel message of Christ.
We should do it prayerfully, praying for our leaders and ourselves as we choose them.
It will be an important day on the 21st August. We should be grateful and thankful to God that we have the opportunity to choose who will govern us in this country. We should all give our vote very careful consideration and vote in an informed way.

Other posts

Michael Jensen, 'How Should a Christian Vote' (here)
'Dispelling Myths About Boat People' (here)