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On Baby Grands and Expensive Hymnals

“Why this waste?”, said the greediest member of the Twelve. Judas’ supposed concern with helping the poor and for efficient use of ministry finances was really a facade for his unvarnished envy. Judas wanted money, and like every jealous soul, disliked money being spent lavishly on someone else.

The sentiment that it is frivolous waste to spend money on anything except dire need is popular among some Christians. It’s an easy sentiment to have, even a lazy one, perhaps. What could be a better use of money than giving it to those who have the least, right? And what could be a more wasteful use of money than spending more on those who already have enough, correct? Such “automatic-entitlement” functions rather like the Left’s politics of victimization. Find a race, gender, or ‘sexual orientation’ that has been supposedly oppressed, and such a group automatically receives the unassailable position of victim, requiring special treatment, and requiring no defense of its now-privileged status. The same Leftist sentimentalism often brews within Christianity, and bubbles out when spending is on anything except extreme need.

My church is not wealthy, relative to some others in the city. Our monthly budget is exactly half of some of our sister churches not far from us. Of course, that same budget is several times larger than some of the other churches we know and fellowship with. That’s simply life, and as anyone who understands biblical economics knows, inequality is not injustice. 

But given our middle-sized budget, what justification is there for spending a considerable amount of the hard-earned and saved money of our church on a very expensive musical instrument, and on hard-cover hymnals?  How could we do this, amidst a sea of poverty? “Why this waste?”, one might opine. Why not a few guitars and a simple Powerpoint projection?

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Tobias Clausnitzer, "Blessed Jesus, at Thy Word"

One of the best answers comes from C.S. Lewis, in his essay Learning in War-time. Lewis faced a similar criticism during World War 2. What was the point of having scholars study medieval literature or Anglo-Saxon linguistics when there were Nazis bombing European cities? Wasn’t this an almost literal enactment of fiddling while Rome burned?

Lewis first countered that the ‘need’, be it wartime efforts or a crying social need, has never been enough for humans to suspend humane learning.  “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came. …They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

But what of the Gospel, missions and church-planting? Lewis realized that the sentiment that what is ultimate must capture all our thinking and acting is superficially compelling: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?”

Lewis answered in two ways. First, he pointed out that conversion does not make one a monomaniac, possessed of only one goal and activity. “Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.”

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Second, he recognised that were Christians to supposedly give up these ‘frivolous’ activities, the vacuum would only draw in inferior substitutes. We cannot escape our nature. “If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”

Christians must continue to pursue the highest and best, even in the presence of dire need. No period of undisturbed tranquility is just over the horizon, the arrival of which will then permit a Golden Age of pursuing the best that has been thought or written. The time for beauty, higher learning, and the pursuit of excellence is now, whether we are in Monaco or Monrovia. If we, in the name of wartime-lifestyle-Gospel-centred-radical-whatever-you-call-it, eschew beautiful instruments and quality hymnals, all that will happen is we will sing inferior songs on inferior instruments.

Certainly, there is the danger of contented complacency, enjoying Laodicean luxury. Certainly, there will be vast disparities between what one church can do as opposed to another. But it is a fallacy to equate the pursuit of beauty with elitism or self-pampering. If a church gives a serious chunk of its monthly budget to missions, church-planting  and to needs within its church, while spending considerably to sing with excellence, it is simply doing what Christians should do, whatever their circumstances: love God as best you can, and love your neighbor as best you can.

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Lord Smiley-Face
David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

3 Responses to On Baby Grands and Expensive Hymnals

  1. Good, loving argumentation here. Thank you, David.
    I’d expand the argument in one more direction, at least. Consider the golden rule (Luke 6:31 and parallel in Matt. 7). I recognize how much I have been blessed by the musical training of various local churches in my own experience. Musical excellence was valued. If we see personal and congregational benefit in quality music, hymnals, instruments and musicians–shall we not encourage a musical application of the golden rule for the benefit of future generations?
    Similarly, Denis McNamara makes an analogous argument concerning architecture. (For the sake of this line of reasoning, let us assume an either/or investment.) Should we spend our church’s money on a beautiful building or on feeding the poor? McNamara points out that even the poor can be blessed in the enjoyment of ecclesiastical beauty. In fact, the peace and sanctity of beautiful church architecture is typically not easy to find. (Thankfully, as you point out well in your article, meeting one need does not necessitate foregoing another.)
    As God provides beautiful hymnals and instruments in our churches, we can be investing in the generations hereafter.

  2. I understand the point of your article. I’m generally for what you describe. But it still feels like “fiddling while Rome is burning.” Churches are closing, leaders are leaving and retiring and no one is taking their place. Baby grands render us stationary. The church is meant for mobility.

  3. Steve,

    I, too, sense the seeming incongruity. Hence my defence, and similarly Lewis’s.
    I take nothing away from the urgency of practical needs facing the church. When the pioneers arrived, they needed to cut trees for shelter, not for violins.
    At some point though, the shelters are built, the inhabitants are safe, and while more houses must be built, someone can turn to the less urgent, but no less important task of making violins.
    To use Eisenhower’s taxonomy for a moment, cultivating holy affections is important but not urgent. A lot of ministry is urgent but not important. Some things are neither urgent nor important, and some are both. I’d agree with those who say leaders should actually spend most of their time on what is important but not urgent. That will include training leaders to replace those leaving, and shaping hearts to love beauty.
    I don’t really know what you mean by stationary and mobility, unless you’re referring to the actual weight of a baby-grand :)

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