Good Worship Music, Bad Worship

“So, you got your wife a diamond ring for your 25th anniversary?”

“I sure did. Two and half carets.”

“That’s great, Bill. One thing though, I thought you said she wanted a new SUV?”

“She did. But, where was I going to find a fake jeep?”

Accidents and Substance

Gifts of love are wrapped in marvelous subtlety and nuance that dramatically change them. The change is more fundamental than the fabled curse of King Midas, turning ordinary cheap tableware into solid gold with a touch. To employ the Aristotelian language Thomas Aquinas brings to play in his teachings on the Eucharist, we can wholly change the substance of a gift, while leaving the accidents untouched.*

Of course, in my opening story, the joke is that both the physical nature and the meaning nature of the “diamond” were changed in your mind as you hear the husband’s last line. That is, you suddenly thought of the diamond ring as an inexpensive fake (physical characteristics), but you also shifted instantly in your view of the ring’s symbolic nature as an anniversary gift (meaning characteristics): it is a cheap trick void of genuine romantic love. If some man mutters something about it being just “good stewardship” at this point, women have a moral obligation to have that man flogged until he comes to his senses.

The incredibly fluid nature of how this works can be illustrated if we consider the same basic story and change just one element (sadly, it also loses its humor in the process). In this version, Bill does not know the ring was fake.

Bill was fooled by an unscrupulous online jeweler whose website has since shut down. He paid thousands of dollars for the ring that he gave as an anniversary gift to his wife. Only months later, when Mary took it to a local jeweler to be cleaned, did she discover it was not a real diamond. In that instant, the ring also changed for Mary.

In its physical nature, she no longer saw it as a diamond. She could not look at it and pretend it was. She knew and could not un-know the ring was a cheap imitation. But, follow me here, Mary still sees the ring as a sacrificial gift of her husband’s love. The meaning-nature of the ring has not changed. It remains an ongoing symbol capable of both holding and bringing her husband’s love to her.

So powerful is this unchanged perception that Mary’s knowledge of it’s true physical nature cannot rob the ring of its power to embody Bill’s love. In fact, Mary might decide out of love never to tell her sweet husband that he had been duped. In that, she will return his gift of love held in a fake ring by one of her own: the precious gift of not telling her husband the truth about the ring. A fake ring balanced by dishonesty with both serving as conduits of amazingly real love. I told you it was marvelously subtle.

So, in this revised story we keep the ring fake, but change the husband’s beliefs and amount of sacrifice. And, oh my, the husband’s belief and sacrifice transforms the fake without changing its monetary value. Faith trumps the fake. Junk transformed into treasure while still, at the level of sterile reality, remaining junk.

Let’s play with the story one more time. Let’s make the diamond real. Real and very valuable. Worth many tens of thousands of dollars. But, in this version the husband bought it to try and patch up a failing marriage. His wife told him the night before that she had proof of his dozens of ongoing sexual affairs with housemaids and women from work. She announced her intention to see an attorney and get a divorce in which, by prenuptial agreement, she will keep much of the wealth of their marriage. Desperate to keep his affluent lifestyle, her philandering husband rushed out of the house that morning and bought the most expensive ring he could find at the nearest jewelry store.

There you have it in reverse. The husband’s so-called gift has managed to physically be a true treasure while being transformed by the circumstances, into a pathetically self-serving act that does not hold a drop of love.

Unreliable Links

Junk as junk. Junk as treasure. Treasure as junk. Kind of overwhelming, isn’t it? We hold within us the ability to separate nature from meaning, accidents from substance. Because it is so automatic, we easily assume the two are linked.

So strong is this assumption that jewelers can advertise a diamond ring shows a man’s love for a woman. But that’s not always true. The link is not absolute. Change the circumstances, particularly as they reflect the husband’s intentions or the personal cost of the ring for the man, and the same gift no longer communicates the same love.

Now, think about the real subject of this post: the quality of the worship music we present to God when we gather. That’s a relatively objective measurable reality. Great music sounds like great music. Poorly played and sung music, painfully out of tune, is universally recognized as bad music.

In the worship of God, we are all guilty of linking great worship music with great worship. Spectacular praise music well sung by an enthusiastic congregation worships God better than poor praise music badly sung by a small group of people seemingly void of musical tastes or abilities. We know great worship when we hear it.

Maybe. Or, maybe not.

If we think of circumstances where a church hires talented musicians who don’t love God but love performing in church or a church with beautiful-sounding worship coming from hundreds of self-satisfied rich corporate executives who mistreat their employees and will not make the slightest personal sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom, the link is broken. It would be physically great sounding and great looking worship, but, at the level of meaning, it would be bad worship.  Every year at the Grammy’s, some awards are given for gospel music. As a part of this, the planners will bring a gospel group on stage to sing a gospel song. Gospel music sung to a whole theater full of performers and professionals in the recording industry who stand, clap and move with the music, and often sing joyfully along. Great worship? You’re kidding, right?

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tomlawson@churchleaders.com'
Tom has taught in Christian higher education for 25 years, with a focus on the theology and history of Christian worship. Tom, along with his wife Linda, serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College (Joplin, Missouri, US). Tom grew up among the Primitive Baptists of the Appalachian mountains. Through his adult life, he has served in churches and taught at schools associated with the Christian Churches (of the Stone-Campbell Movement).