Singing a More Beautiful Song

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

One of the perennial tensions the church faces in its missional calling to the world is faithfully calibrating how to be relevant. On the one hand, if the witness of the church does not relate to the practical concerns, issues, and questions of contemporary culture, why would we expect non-Christians to notice or care? To shine with the Light of Christ is “to live and move and have our being in him” (Acts 17:28) within the ordinary and social realities known to the people around us. Like Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity is anchored in the human condition.

On the other hand, at times in its history the church has forfeited its unique calling within society as an unintended consequence of wanting to be relevant at the expense of faithfulness. Much of Israel’s history in the Old Testament can be read as a series of disastrous epochs in which the nation was more interested in being like other nations than in being the unique people of God. Similarly, the church can be tempted to sacrifice revealed truth on the altar of popular acceptance. Jesus was shatteringly clear that being his follower would lead us into conflict with the world.

I am paying attention to a lot of debate in large swaths of the American church these days, around how contemporary Christians are to sail the winds of culture and navigate the politics of the age. Some argue our times call for a winsome approach to church engagement with society. Others argue society is increasingly hostile to traditional faith, and an unapologetic forceful counter-witness is necessary. My view is there is merit on both ends of that spectrum and much room between the extremes.

An old story from Greek mythology may be helpful in thinking about this tension. You may recall the mythological figure of Orpheus, renowned for his superhuman singing voice. There is an episode from his life where he joins forces with the Argonauts, a band of heroes on the sailing ship Argo who accompanied their leader Jason in the quest for the Golden Fleece.

At one point in their journey, sea currents carry the Argonauts’ vessel close to a small island. As the ship draws nearer, the men on board begin to hear lovely singing coming from the island. The effect of this beautiful music is irresistible, drawing the Argonauts toward the sound. Orpheus, alone among the crew, suddenly realizes the singing is coming from the Sirens whose frightful reputation is to lure music-drunk unsuspecting sailors to their shore only to kill them.

Discerning the looming disaster, Orpheus immediately grabs his lyre and begins to sing himself. The men on the boat are torn between the songs of the Sirens and the songs sung by Orpheus on board. Orpheus tries to sing as well as be possibly can to roust the Argonauts from their trance-like fixation on the Sirens.

In the end, the singing contest is determined by the content of the songs themselves. The Sirens’ allure is not just how well they sing but in what they sing about: their songs praise the achievements of the Argonauts, tickle their pride, and stroke their egos. How attractional! Orpheus songs, however, remind the Argonauts of their homes, their fathers, and mothers, and of where they are going in their seafaring quest. In other words, Orpheus sings to remind the men of their identity and mission, while the Sirens sing songs to flatter.

There are two lessons to tease out of this Greek tale:

  1. The church in any day is called to sing songs that are more beautiful and truer than the Sirens of culture. A topic for another day will be on the importance of the arts as a God-intended means of cultural engagement. For now, the point is that our witness, our liturgies, and indeed the very songs we sing as the church, should articulate the depth of the gospel rather than the gloss of cultural popularity.
  2. Our witness should speak of our identity and mission, of who we are and where we are going. We point to Christ and his loving purposes rather than to our own goodness or achievements.

May the Lord grant us wisdom to sail today’s cultural waters as those well-attuned to the realities of the day and faithful to the call of our Father in heaven. Amen.

Weekly Wisdom

"This is a dark world. There are many ways to keep that darkness at bay, but we cannot do it forever. Eventually the lights of our lives—love, health, home, work—will begin to go out. And when that happens, we will need something more than our understanding, competence, and power can give us."

—Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

One Good Recommendation

On May 19, the American church lost a great leader with the death of Timothy Keller. Keller was the founding pastor of the well-known Redeemer Church (Presbyterian) in Manhattan. He was also a best-selling Christian author and leader of a worldwide church-planting movement. Among Keller’s books that I have appreciated the most is The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. This book is for those who doubt the Christian faith as well as for those who believe but are challenged by non-believers. Perhaps no other Christian voice in the last fifty years has been more influential wrestling intelligently and faithfully with tensions between Christ and culture than Timothy Keller. The world will miss him.

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