Monday, 21 November 2016

Bethel, Trump and Musical Triumphalism


I've got a TEST for you! Yes, YOU, ultra-keen worship-geek! What lyric links the following worship songs together?

1. Spirit Break Out
2. What a Beautiful Name it is
3. Mighty to Save
4. The Lion and the Lamb

(Hint: it's not Jesus. Those tricks you learned in Sunday school won't work here.)

Got it? No? Maybe you looked up the words and still couldn't put your finger on it? No worries, we can't all be as weirdly obsessed with Christian lyrics as me. I'll tell you: it's 'king'.

King Jesus, the King of Kings, kings and kingdoms, the risen King, Christ my King...

So what? No big deal, right? It's not a surprise that we call God King. The discerning Anglican among you will point out that last Sunday was the feast of Christ the King and so that worship list would be entirely appropriate for a celebration around this time. Unless of course you're in a charismatic evangelical church (who else would play those songs?) and so pretty much ignore the liturgical calendar. But even on an ordinary day...what would be the problem with singing that?

Ordinarily, I'd agree. Normally, I'd be chanting along with the best of them, flinging my arms up and belting, 'He's coming on the clouds! Kings and kingdoms will bow down...' Not least because that song is really actually quite good.

But last Friday night I couldn't. Last Friday night, when the above set was indeed being belted out all around me by enthusiastic northerners, led by an appropriately attractive worship leader with an appropriately edgy backing band, I found myself instead stuttering into silence, staring at the screen, and then down at my hands. Because for the first time, I heard the words as a political outsider.

Two weeks ago, Bethel's Bill Johnson released this statement spelling out in scarily shaky 'biblical exegesis' his endorsement for Donald Trump. Friends and colleagues over here in the UK responded in shock: what does this say about Bethel's theology? What does it suggest about their discernment? How are we to receive their ministry of worship songwriting in the light of this?

Some suggested shunning them. Refusing to sing their worship songs at all. My instinct lies against this; if we were to avoid any ministry linked to sinful or mistaken people we'd have to lock ourselves away. Just because a person is off-track in one area doesn't mean God can't still work through their ministry.

But last Friday, as I stood in the ancient, worn stone of the cathedral, I felt strangely uneasy. For the first time, I heard the words we were singing with a political ear:

Who can stop the Lord almighty? 
Our God is a lion, the lion of Judah. 
He's roaring in power and fighting our battles...

Fighting our battles? Which battles? Our personal struggle against gluttony? Our battle against individuality and consumerism? Or our political battle to put an anti-abortionist into power, no matter whom he crushes in his wake?

Every knee will bow before the lion and the lamb,
Every knee will bow before him.

Our lectionary readings leading up to advent have been a disturbing cocktail of dragons, abominations, ravenous lions, stinging locusts and a terrible beast with a lion's mouth, with power and a throne and great authority, whom the whole earth worships declaring, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?" Creepy at the best of times. In a month of intense political upheaval, particularly disturbing. When you've spent a month marinating in those readings, suddenly lines like the ones above start to sound more ominous.

Of course I'm not suggesting Bethel were writing about the abomination, and nor am I claiming that Donald Trump is the anti-christ. What I am saying is that triumphalism is all very well when it's coming from the lips of a martyr-hearted, self-sacrificial church, made up of the mourners, the meek, the hungry and the merciful. But sadly, that's not the only voice of the church, and on Friday night, it wasn't the voice my mind could hear. The voice I heard was the voice of rich, white American evangelicals who threw their hefty weight behind an arrogant demagogue who reviled ethnic minorities, refugees, minority religious folk and women while boasting about his own wealth gained by trampling on others – purely because they wanted their particular white American capitalist Christianity to dominate all other people groups and philosophies.

You know what? The sound of that worship makes me sick. It makes me physically ill. What's worse, it turns out, when you start listening for that thread of triumphalism, it is everywhere. Every song played on that Friday night bar three – three! – were monopolised by conquering, triumphalist language. But do you know how many times Matthew, the gospel which mentions the kingdom more than any other, refers to God the Father directly as King? Nil. Not once. Do you know how many times it refers to Jesus as King? Only six times. Four times during the passion, once when he rides into Jerusalem 'humble, and mounted on a donkey', and once by the wise men, as a baby. A crucified victim, a humble donkey-rider, a fragile child. Is that the dominant king the songs speak of?

Kingdom, of course, comes up a lot more. It's described in depth by Jesus, not least in the Beatitudes. Who does this kingdom belong to, according to Jesus in Matthew? The persecuted; the poor in spirit; the peacemakers; the merciful; those who mourn; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the meek. How often do any of those descriptors come up in our songs?

What I'm trying to say is that perhaps we've got a little off-course. Perhaps a little imperial mentality, a capitalist, competitive mentality, has crept into our Christian culture to the extent that we've forgotten the words of the Bible and have begun to view our faith through the lense of the spirit of the age. As the old saying goes, lex orandi, lex credendi - what we pray, we believe. So if we spend all our time singing about our God fighting our battles and dominating the kingdoms of this world, it shouldn't be surprising when we vote that way too.

Maybe it's time to take a step back and a deep breath, look at the metaphors for God that our songs are saturated with, and recalibrate ourselves to be back in line with scripture. A God who is humble; a God who is self-sacrificial; a God who is generous. Wouldn't it be something if the church voted along those lines.

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