I have been asked a few times my thoughts on the controversial Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s leading candidate for the presidency. Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally yesterday. The reports indicate that while he is in a stable condition, full recovery is still uncertain a. His fans will likely view his cause with a greater martyr-like passion and his opponents–populating the major networks in Brazil will outdo themselves in advertisements against him in these final 30 days.
Bolsonaro has been named as the Brazilian Donald Trump. He has received the kind of press Donald Trump has for speaking his mind. For example, he opines openly about sexuality issues condemning the public education system for their graphic school books on anal sex and other homosexual acts. He also wants to enact a policy that sexual abusers shall be chemically castrated which has been interpreted as homophobic by many and received strong opposition from human rights’ activists largely on the left of Brazil’s politics.
He has a general disposition towards de-bureaucratizing government policies. The man who will lead his economics department is a firm believer in more limited government and privatization. Bolsonaro also has a similar Trumpian view of trading with China. Bloomberg summarizes his position:
China is currently Brazil’s biggest trading partner but Bolsonaro has serious reservations about Chinese investment in Brazil. He says Brazil should trade with China, but says he’d like “trade with the United States to be much larger” than with the Asian nation. He prefers “great partnerships” with U.S. firms instead of “making concessions to the Chinese.”
Jair Bolsonaro has a military background which makes his central agenda the security of the Brazilian people which is one reason his numbers are so high at this stage in the election cycle. Brazil’s violence continues to soar under the current presidency. The New York Times observes:
With 62,517 violent deaths in 2016, Brazil reached a record-high homicide rate of more than 30 per 100,000 residents, according to the latest annual study that compiles law enforcement and health statistics. (In the United States that rate dropped to five homicides per 100,000 people from eight from 1996 to 2015.)
In my estimation, Bolsonaro will be a needed change from leftist politics that have dominated the country for almost two decades. Honestly, he needs to win. If the Brazilian political system is not shaken now, the country will become a glorified version of Venezuela.
Many of us grew up in theological backgrounds where the psalms were known, but not sung. These theological backgrounds are anomalies throughout the history of the Church. E.F. Harrison observed that “Psalmody was a part of the synagogue service that naturally passed over into the life of the church.” Calvin Stapert speaks of the fathers’ “enthusiastic promotion of psalm-singing” which he says, “reached an unprecedented peak in the fourth century.” James McKinnon speaks of “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm” for the psalms in the second half of the fourth century. Hughes Oliphint Old argued that Calvin appealed to the church historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen) as well as the church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom) for the singing of psalms. While the Reformers did not advocate the exclusive singing of Psalms they did express “a partiality for Psalms and hymns drawn from Scripture.” a
The Reformer Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music b.“ By the end of the 19th century, however, most hymnals produced had limited psalms to a couple of well-known pieces like Old One-Hundredth. Beyond that, scriptural references had all but disappeared. Terry Johnson summarized the state of psalmlessness:
This eclipse of psalmody in the late nineteenth century is quite unprecedented. The psalms, as we have seen, have been the dominant form of church song beginning with the Church Fathers, all through the Middle Ages, during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, and into the modern era. By the beginning of the twentieth century the church had lost the voice through which it had expressed its sung praise for more than 1800 years. c
Though the last hundred years were not psalm-friendly, we have seen in the last 30 years a kind of revival of psalmody in the modern church, especially in the Reformed tradition. New hymnals, like the Cantus Christi, and many others are including old and new psalms ( metrical and chants).
So why should we sing the psalms? Aren’t the 19th century hymns and contemporary songs sufficient to fulfill the worship demands of the modern congregation?
The answer is a resounding no!
There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:
First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word than to sing it?
Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.
Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.
Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”
Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.” d
Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shape us more and more after the image of Christ.
Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.
Eighth, we should sing the Psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, one reason for this is its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.
Ninth, the Psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.
Tenth, you should sing the Psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.
This may all sound daunting and strange. But I’d encourage you to take that first step. What first may appear to be strange may become a wonderful journey into praise and thanksgiving to the God from whom all blessings flow.
For more information on how to sing the psalms, or for resources, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Terry Johnson’sThe History of Psalm Singing in the Church; I depended heavily on that article for the quotes on this paragraph (back)
Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974 (back)
I spent a couple of hours today chatting with an old friend of mine. He is now a pastor of a Lutheran congregation. He is a fine fellow whom I long to re-acquaint face to face with a pipe and a fine beer. After all these years we have kept a relatively lively relationship over the phone. We have even joined forces to write a lengthy piece combating an evangelical prohibitionist advocate of our day.
Interestingly what brought us together even more so in these last few years have been our theological journeys. We both attended a fundamentalist college, but even back then we were already pursuing dangerous literature. One time he brought a book back from home that had a warning sign on its first page written by his mother. The first page stated that we were to be careful as we read this book for it was written by a Calvinist. Lions, and tigers, and Calvinists, oh my!
How far we have come! It has been over 10 years since we parted those glory college days, and now we both are pastoring healthy congregations. We are in different theological traditions, but very rooted in our Protestant commitments. Beyond that, we are rooted in a vastly historic tradition.
As I pondered that conversation I wondered just how much I have changed over this last decade. I went from a revival preacher to a liturgical minister. Now don’t get me wrong, I long for revival, I just don’t long for the same type my brothers long for. This revival I long for is filled with beautiful images, a pattern-filled story, tasty bread, and delightful wine; church colors, rituals– in the best sense of the term—and lots of feasting. While my fundamentalist brothers longed for the sweet by and by, and times they would gather at the river to sing of that ol’ time religion. Those romantic days no longer appeal to me.
How have I changed? In so many ways! But my changes were not just theological. I have held the same convictions I have today on a host of issues for over 10 years. My changes were more situational and existential (and normative for the tri-perspectivalists out there). My reality has changed. I now treasure different things that I did not treasure a decade ago. You may say marriage does that, but the reality is I have taken my sola scriptura to the next level. I have begun to see its applicability beyond the sphere of the mind. The arm-chair theologian no longer seems admirable. Even marriage carries a symbolic significance to me. This is not just a privatized institution; it is, to quote Schmemann, “for the sake of the world.” Yes, I have changed.
I have also changed existentially. I have learned to delve deeply into personal piety and have found it refreshing. In the past my piety led me into the valley of pietism. It was discouraging; pessimistic. Now my piety keeps me in green pastures. My existential struggle with doubt is no longer a reality. I have found objectivity in the most unlikely places. They have kept me secure and alert to my own tendencies; to the idols that I have failed to crush. Jesus has become more than an intellectual pursuit, but the heart of the issues, because he is the heart of history.
Yes, I have changed since my college days. I would like even to affirm that this is the new me; a “me” broken by idolatry and restored and renewed by word, water, and wine. Thanks be to God!
The results are in and they don’t look good. Christianity Today reports on the Sex Lives of Unmarried Evangelicals. The two surveys offer differing numbers, but the conclusion is summarized in this manner:
Bible Reading? Evangelicals who infrequently read the Bible were 70 percent more likely to have been recently sexually active than frequent Bible readers.
Church Attendance? Evangelicals who attend church less than weekly were more than twice as likely to have been recently sexually active than weekly attenders.
Conversion? Of the sexually active singles, 92 percent had sex after becoming“born again.” That’s largely because the average age when evangelicals under 40 became “born again” was 8.
Evangelical statistics have a way of increasing our national Christian guilt, which is something that usually is already mighty high. Furthermore, the numbers usually paint a more pessimistic picture than what is actually taking place. My general principle when dealing with these statistics is to cut the percentage by a third. When the oft-cited “50% of Christian married couples end in divorce” statistic is referenced, this usually means about 35% of Christian married couples divorce. Those original statistics also included Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. A Non-Trinitarian marriage is anything but a Christian marriage.
But however you do the math, the numbers are still frightening. No one can deny that they reflect a weak evangelicalism. It is not that evangelical churches are fully entertainment driven without any substance, but that the substance they offer is not sustaining, and therefore leading our young generations to find pleasure is worldly entertainment. Part of this worldly entertainment is the casualness of the sex culture.
Since this is the case we have responded in the way we evangelical do best: we have over-reacted. We have bought into the “world is against us” slogan and we have acted upon it with zealous fury. We have sheltered our children to the point of stifling their rhetoric and making them miserable spokesmen for the Lordship of King Jesus. On the other hand, we have overly exposed them to the vastness of sexualized culture. By the age of ten they all have their Lady Gaga lyrics as accurately as a Puritan boy his catechism memorized.
What can evangelical churches do to provide a culture that despises impurity and treasures purity?
The remarkable response–according to the statistics– is by focusing on the simple means of grace of Church attendance, Prayer, and Bible reading one reduces dramatically the chances of engaging in fornication. I have stated many times that the evangelical problem is one of prioritization. And what does priority look like in the church? The damning news is that conversion is not enough. For many parents conversion serves as a perpetual moral babysitter. As long as words are spoken affirming the X,Y, and Z of Christian conversion then we are on our way to bringing up pure children. But conversion or its vocabulary are not enough! The evangelical culture has evangelized their children to death, and then they are left wondering where did we go wrong.
Here is a sample quoted above:
Evangelicals who infrequently read the Bible were 70 percent more likely to have been recently sexually active than frequent Bible readers.
Let’s say 50% of this is true. Without going into detail of what this “Bible-Reading” should look like–a worthy discussion to be had–in what ways are churches inculcating their children with the Sacred Scriptures? In other words, what are they doing to instill a desire in our children to drink deeply of the Biblical narrative? Have churches made the Bible so one-sided and narrowly explicated that our children long to escape to a different narrative of the world?
As we affirm Sola-Scriptura, let us also delve into the Scriptures in a transformative way. “Your word is life,” says Yahweh. And this alone is enough to make the point of the study. When one saturates himself in life, then he will find death-like practices abominable.
To echo N.T. Wright, let’s return to a simply Christian view of life. Our understanding of sexuality needs to be transformed by a new understanding of who we are in Christ. Our new creation life is a life that treasures sex in its right context. Further, it sees the life of another human being as sacred, and therefore violating that sacredness–which is what pre-marital sex is–is a violation of life; a profound misunderstanding of the Imago Dei.
The Scriptures and its reading will help us re-shape our view of ourselves and others, but it must be done in a context that perpetuates the reality that the new world brings a new light and this light is filled with redemptive and ethical consequences. Therefore, forsake the works of darkness and drink deeply of the words of life.
*An additional post on “How to read Bible” will soon follow.
As confident as I am that skeptical voices fill our heads, I am more confident of a more truthful voice speaking quietly from our gut, patiently but incessantly tapping out a counterpoint message. To be human is to care; to be human is to long to know, to knock persistently on the door of the world in which we find ourselves, to beg entrance and receive far more than we anticipate.
Why care about knowing? Because we’re human. To be human is to care. And caring, I want to suggest, holds a key to rethinking knowing.
Rationalists have long argued that God is logic and logic is God. But as Sean Choi observes,
…if logic is God, then God would be abstract, since logic is abstract. But God can’t be abstract, since, as I understand it, abstract entities are not personal, whereas God is personal.
But again, is logic defined as impersonal a secular way of understanding logic? or is there a biblical way of understanding logic that is not impersonal, but rather personal? If the latter, could we say that logic is God in the sense that logic is one of God’s attributes and thus what belongs to God is truly who He is? My own thinking at this point is that logic should be defined as abstract and thus not to be compared to God in any way. As John Ronning observes , in the beginning was the word, not the logic. John’s usage of the logos is heavily rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, which avoids any concept of the deification of logic.
Peter Leithart warns “…that it is significant that the apostle Paul appeared before kings, magistrates, presumably Caesar, and that he preached in synagogues, in stadia and in the temple. Only once, to our knowledge, did he preach to philosophers, and that was a distinctly unsuccessful venture (Acts 17). There is a message in that, both about the proper deployment of the church’s energies and about the hopes for success in dealing with the cultured despisers.”
Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in else should meddle with anything of the kind. . .their dealings either with enemies or their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind. . .
It looks like the modern state has mastered Plato.
As a self-professing advocate of the free market, I often come across Ayn Rand. Rand–who is committed to objectivism and Aristotelian logic–defines her philosophy thusly:
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. (Appendix to Atlas Shrugged)
It does not take long to see Rand’s worldview. She is overtaken by the idea of man as the all in all of human existence, and thus, he–man–is to achieve the highest and noblest activity in this life; live within the greatest amount of happiness for tomorrow we die. Unlike many atheists who deny the need for absolutes, Ayn scolds such approach. Rather, she held that reason is the only objective tool available to know anything.
Though she refused to label herself a Libertarian, immoral and anarchistic libertarians exalt Rand as a model of laissez-faire capitalism. Indeed Rand was an arch defender of the free market and a formidable opponent of Marxism and Socialism, but her philosophical foundation exalted man above all else and made man a god unto himself. She urged a pursuit of gain outside of any religious commitment; she desired autonomous reason in a God-ordered world. Rand’s contributions to political and economic theory is helpful in many ways, but her contribution is marred by her suppression of truth.