Kitsch and Repentance

I have what some would probably think is a snooty attitude about guitars in church. One would think all that need be said has been said. Still, I have never succeeded in getting across the real reason for my objection. It is not merely a matter of taste. I think it is a matter of ecclesiology; of conceptions about the church itself, some of which are actually harmful to people.

If my warnings have any basis in fact, it is this: folksy “praise” invites the people into a regressive mindset toward the faith, of a piece with the “family” language which one hears so often. Meanwhile, according to Matthew, Jesus has some pretty harsh things to say about family and how it runs afoul of faith. Think our gay and feminist friends, who should be among the first to agree, because family talk bllithely excludes people who have no aspirations to conventional family. Our agreed favorite hymn, number 140/141, contains language about seducing others into sin.

Supposedly, folk—or more lately, rock—music addresses simpler folks, especially some who are new to the congregation. These are the ones, the argument goes, of whom Jesus speaks as children. I know the sayings about little children being welcome in the Kingdom, but this is a misapplication. Children are welcome because they are innocently curious, receptive—unaware of themselves, of sin, or even of faith, as anything exceptional. If that is the understanding, if someone wants the guitar to signify the bearer’s lack of a mission, his dependence on the mercy of God—in short of being no disciple but a sheep needing rescue—then I say let him have his guitar (preferably among the fields, outside town, where Jesus typically met such folks).

But that is not what happens. The guitar people are parish leaders. Their offending instruments are signs of their status, their prerogative to lead others. They don’t claim to be expressing their own taste, but condescending to needs of young people, newcomers, etc.

When Jesus upbraids the disciples, the cause is the same which he holds against the Pharisees: their lack of understanding, their failure to carry out their special vocation as servants of the first group. They’d rather sit around with him in big purple chairs. Jesus’ frustration is nonsense unless disciples are charged with some special role. To be disciples is our great Christian ethical hope. Disciples too (think of Paul) have their thorns and pains, toward which Jesus is not especially solicitous. Jesus does not give Paul healing, even though he asks for it. Instead, he lands on the man like a jackal out of a tree.

•                      •                      •

To my reading of Matthew there are two audiences for the Gospel. One is the crowds, comprised of (choose your metaphor) the sheep, the little ones, the poor, the children. The other is the disciples, those whom Jesus gives responsibility to preach to and care for the first group. In our enlightened age we may deplore such distinctions, but I have found no way around this reading. There are those—the disciples—whom Jesus upbraids for their thickheadedness, from whom he evidently expects something. Then there are those whom he simply forgives and cures.

•                      •                      •

Now, I grant that this dichotomy between child and disciple might cut through the center of a person, rather than between one person and another. The disciple can never afford to hold himself above the sheep; he is always susceptible to the same temptations as they. I also grant that childish receptivity might qualify a child to be a disciple. If so, he could throw away his guitar and get on with work. Thus, there are paradoxes in this view. When was theology otherwise?

None of those concessions weakens the point: those who teach religion as a sort of sanctifying frosting on the cloying cake of pop culture are dangerous. To treat the praise of the Lord of Hosts as though it were already familiar, to treat faith as if it required no change or reassessment of a person is madness. Kindergarten music is part of a concerted program (I’m tempted to say, a program of the devil) to do just that, and so to immunize people against faith. For nothing so protects a person against learning as thinking he already knows.

The intemperate tone of this comes out of my wasted youth. I “belonged” to one church or another all along. “All are welcome,” they said. I know something about the meaning of acceptance in that context. Mere presence is the sum and substance of the thing. As with a sleazy credit jeweler, all are welcome. Thousands of others have been sold the same line, and are no closer for it to the (yes!) joy of repentance.

Only after repentance is acceptance interesting. There is nothing remarkable or gracious about a god or a man who loves his admirers. The shock comes when we realize he loves us his enemies and haters. Then one starts to grow up. (I was 39). I started to realize how gracious God really is, and feel some affinity for him. I pray the same happiness for other people.

One thought on “Kitsch and Repentance”

  1. Anything by John Donne is good, but I can’t say I ever heard that hymn in my wanderings through Episcopal parishes.

    On guitars and praise music: It’s performance music, often, although not always, theologically vapid or worse, not designed for congregational singing, and focused on the musicians rather than on the people worshipping God together. Gregorian or Anglican chant in unison is far better for the soul, and most people can sing it.

    We just returned from a trip to Croatia. On a Friday noon in Zagreb we walked into the Cathedral. They were celebrating mass, with a good number of people in the pews. Along with the organ, priest and people were singing responsive “Alleluias.” That’s worship.

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