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Pastors – Become Literate in Christian Culture

When the topic of music and worship comes up, a favorite slap-down argument against thoughtful discrimination of music is that pastors need not study music to be faithful pastors.

It is beside the point to say that pastors need not become art critics. If their vocation is that of shepherding the flock, it is manifestly true that they are not called to a full-time practice of judging the merits of art. The real point is that pastors are leaders of Christians, and they are to lead Christians not only in theological thought, but in the practice of worship. It is impossible to worship without art (for we must at minimum use music and poetry – Colossians 3:16), so a pastor who knows nothing about art and wishes to provide leadership in worship is equivalent to the pastor who wishes to lead through the pulpit but neglects to learn a modicum of theology. However sincere he may be, however homiletically gifted he may be, a theological bumpkin will confuse and mislead in the pulpit. He must master (or become competent in) the canons of theological thought if he is to bring lucid biblical ideas to believers.

Not every pastor will have been trained musically, poetically or otherwise. This is a disadvantage, but not a crippling flaw. To lead he must grow in judgement, not in technical proficiency. Judgement of art may be enhanced when the critic is himself a musician, poet, or writer, for he understands better the materials used, and the skill required. But judgement and artistic ability are not Siamese twins, by any means. Many musicians are abysmal critics, poor judges, and have appalling taste. Indeed, in some cases, they are the worst critics, because their technical ability blinds them to their poor taste. Some critics cannot play or sing, but can make valid and insightful judgements. This is because art is experienced before it is understood technically or judged critically. Every man is capable of experiencing art, and reflecting on his experience – though technical and critical judgement should make us more reflective about our experience.

How should a pastor become a better judge of the art to be used in worship? I would not discourage the man from seeking to learn about music or poetry from composers, such as Bernstein, Copland, or Meyer, or by reading the judgements of men like Scruton. As a pastor myself, I have a suspicion that he will be hard-pressed to fit these books into his reading list, which itself is forever being postponed by ministry necessities.

What I would recommend is that the man expose himself to historic Christian culture. Let him read the poetry and hymns of his people in his devotions. Let him him hear their music in his office, in his car, and in his living room. Let him surround himself with Christian voices worshipping, until he begins to hear in them voices in union. The longer he spends with historic Christian verse and music, the more he will imbibe its sentiments, its affections, its very posture before God.

While he does this, he should compare what he is hearing from the church triumphant, with what is written and produced by the professed church militant. If he is doing this thoughtfully, he will begin to notice some very different Christians resemble each other in their worship, while some very similar Christians (theologically) differ widely in their worship. Though separated by centuries, theological chasms, and even language, he will easily find parity between Bernard, Rossetti, Herbert, Watts, Wesley, Montgomery, Milton, Donne, Faber, and Tersteegen. Likewise with Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn, or Górecki. Should he live with these men and women, he will listen to 21st century verse or music with a different ear. When judging music or poetry from our era, he will not be looking for something nostalgic, but for something equivalent in our day. He will not be looking for what merely seems accessible or familiar, but for something that echoes historic Christian sentiment.

Becoming culturally literate in your own culture should be a small ask, particularly for those men charged with reproducing Christian culture on a micro-scale in their local churches. Sadly, too many pastors have embraced a view of culture and a view of Scripture that disputes the very existence of Christian culture, and grants a kind of autonomous power to propositional statements from Scripture. For these men, the only question is what music or poetry can be culled from contemporary pop culture that seem (to their judgement) to support the propositional statements of Scripture. And having no comparison for their judgement, the decision comes down, ironically, to how the pastor ‘feels’ about these bits of pop – hardly a propositionally-based judgement.

If I have not persuaded you, at least listen to the Narnian:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books….The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. (On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). 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.