Singing the truth in a relative age

A long Christian tradition

In my leisure time I’ve been reading, from the insightful perspective of a Canadian evangelical theologian, about how postmodernism has fundamentally affected our world, including us Christians. (You have a strange concept of “leisure,” I hear you saying!)

A crucial aspect of postmodern thought is its relativizing of truth: there is no objective truth apart from what you or I assume to be true. Thus Jesus’ assertion that he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” is patently offensive. No one, not even Jesus, has (much less is) the Truth. That’s also why there are ever fewer agreed upon standards of conduct and morality: real morality must rest on a foundation of right and wrong outside ourselves.

While postmodernism is not entirely evil, its ultimate effect has been pernicious. It tells us that we human beings give our own meaning to whatever we experience – and to whatever we read, including the Bible. (That eliminates the possibility of being unbiblical; heresy doesn’t exist.) If I embrace faith in Jesus as my Saviour, that may be fine for me, but other people have other ideas or other faiths which are just as good; so “proselytizing” is out of the question. And don’t call Jesus the Saviour, of the world. Again, it’s offensive, not to mention arrogant.

A corollary is the current concept of tolerance. Tolerance used to mean that, though you might vociferously disagree with someone’s point of view or their entire worldview, you graciously allowed them to express their views, as they did you, and if neither of you budged, each of you agreed to disagree. “Tolerance” now involves, first, the need not to offend; and to be inoffensive means either acquiescing or keeping your (mere personal ) opinions to yourself.

A long Christian tradition
I’m thinking of this because of what I’ve been encountering in the Canadian symphony chorus of which I’ve been a member for almost 25 years. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Western civilization’s history of choral music, you might rightly guess that Christianity was its prevailing spirit. Where were choirs of use but in the church, to express faith? Thus the vast majority of choral works over the centuries have liturgical or other biblically based texts. With some exceptions, that didn’t change much until the 20th century. Even now some composers are still using those texts, though, in the postmodernist spirit, it’s not uncommon to see them combined with texts from other religions, including new age “spirituality.”

That huge body of music with Christian texts is a problem for some of our younger chorus members. Though they appreciate classical music enough to be members of a chorus that sings primarily classical music, they know little or nothing about Christianity. And few are aware of the monumental place this Christian choral music has in the long history of music in our civilization. So they have entered a foreign world. There’s a percentage of our audiences for whom this is also now true.

Such people may choose to ignore the meanings of the Christian texts. That’s fairly easy to do, as most of them are in Latin, or German (though translations are always provided). Yet there’s at least one choir member who takes strong offense to these texts. She has pressed our conductor to avoid singing masses, requiems, passions, etc. He realizes that’s impossible, but her comments – and others, apparently – have made him touchy about being perceived as proselytizing. He uses that very word, and reacts strongly against it. At the same time he grew up in the Christian tradition and, ironically, has a gift for getting across text meanings in rehearsals and concerts, whether or not he believes them himself.

Recently we sang Dvorak’s Requiem, a giant, moving work performed for only the second time in Canada since its writing in 1890. A Czech, Dvorak was a devout Catholic. A requiem, of course, is a mass for the dead, ultimately a prayer for mercy for their souls. So some of it creates unease for Reformed and evangelical Christians. Yet there is much biblical truth in it, not least the admission of terror at God’s judgment of unrepentant sinners apart from Christ.

Before a concert I always pray that singers and audience alike will be touched, yes, transformed, by whatever biblical truths they hear. Apart from after-concert comments about a work’s strong impact, I have no way of knowing in what manner my prayers are answered. No matter. I do know, with Isaiah, that God’s Word – wherever it is found – never returns to him empty. And we can rejoice greatly in that truth.

Author

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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