Update: The conversation continues, both below & in the comments at Bob Kauflin’s blog. Please be courteous if you decide to comment over there.🙂
So I wasn’t at the David Crowder Band-hosted Fantastical Church Music Conference held at Baylor earlier this month, but apparently it created quite a stir. For one thing, it brought together a diverse group of people: Gugnor and Paper Route and Bifrost Arts and Mike Crawford and Welcome Wagon and David Dark and Derek Webb and the Civil Wars (!), alongside CCM worship music stalwarts like Matt Redman, Israel Houghton and Hillsongs London (along with preacher/producer scribe Louie Giglio). But amidst this celebration of aural diversity, there was apparently one voice who was the wrong kind of diversity for some folks: Rob Bell. Quoth Christianity Today:
On Friday morning Rob Bell challenged his audience to drop “blood guilt” and “three-tiered universe” metaphors in their songwriting. He said we needed metaphors that connected to people today. Plenty of people in North America, he said, feel an aching sense of loss of home and we need songs that offer Christ as their true home.
(In the comments section, someone who also attended the conference clarified that Bell didn’t suggest that anyone ‘drop’ blood metaphors, but rather to not solely rely on them.) Are there better ways to think and sing about our universe? Better ways to celebrate the meaning of Jesus? Can I get an “amen”?
Apparently not, from some quarters.
While I appreciate relevance and clear communication, developing our own metaphors for the atonement potentially undermines and distorts the gospel. Yes, it’s important to recognize and communicate the vast and multiple effects of Christ’s death and the resurrection, and yes, Christians can overemphasize theological precision and definition at the expense of actually communicating the good news. But every description of Christ’s work on the cross is connected to our need to be forgiven by and reconciled to a holy God. If we fail to communicate this, we have failed to proclaim the biblical gospel…all metaphors for the atonement are ultimately grounded in penal substitution…[emphasis mine]
One of his comment-ers, Clarice, asked:
On Bell and “metaphors”: I’m not totally clear on what Bell is talking about with metaphors of the atonement…that sounds really abstract and confusing to me.🙂 Does he mean stuff like Galatians 4, Hagar and Sarah, or…?
To which I replied: “Hi Clarice [which can’t help but make me think of Hannibal] – in my opinion, language about atonement (and really, language about ‘God’ in general) is metahphorical in the sense that it is not a 1:1 depiction of the grandeur, majesty, and mystery of God. So: We speak of Jesus’ death as a ‘sacrifice’ for our sins; our Reformed brethren (like Bob here) will likely refer to it as a sacrifice of the Son *unto the Father* for our sins – but these are metaphorical in the sense that Jesus wasn’t literally led to a consecrated altar, and sacrificed before His Father. (We might, indeed, condemn such gross literalism as child sacrifice, which YHWH condemns!) And so historic Christianity has seen this as a way of speaking about the meaning of atonement – one that approximates, but can never fully compass, its meaning.
This doesn’t mean that other atonement metaphors carry more privilege. Pentecostals and charismatics like me in my growing-up years always historically emphasized a ‘ransom’ metaphor of atonement – Jesus rescuing us from the tyranny of the world, the flesh, and the devil. More recently, many of us in what some call the emerging church conversation appreciate NT Wright’s retrieval of the ‘Christus Victor’ model (or metaphor) of atonement, wherein the Father vindicates the goodness and perfect obedience of the Son vis-a-vis bodily resurrection, proclaiming victory over death, and the principalities and powers. Still others, in Quaker and Anabaptist and Girardian schools, rightly empathize the ironic nature of Jesus ‘sacrifice’ as a repudiation of all violence.
While I wasn’t at the Fantastical conference, my guess is that Bell wasn’t suggesting that songwriters make up new metaphors ‘cold turkey,’ but create them in continuity with the great tradition of historic Christianity, giving ourselves the same permission the biblical writers had to seek the Spirit afresh and interpret Gospel goodness to those in our time and place. Because let’s face it, the author of Hebrews is right – Jesus Christ was the final sacrifice! Because of this, sacrifice and blood guilt terminology is a Jesus-authored anachronism, something that no longer makes sense 2,000 years later. Jesus has triumphed over sacrifice once and for all – and our worship should move on accordingly.
To explore more of the sacrifice metaphors of Scripture, I’d recommend Scot McKnight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement,’ as well as atonement links I’ve catologued on Delicious. Grace & peace to you!”
It wasn’t all controversy, though. In addition to great music, some good theologizing about music happened, including this snipped that Bob also blogs about:
At one point I quoted Harold Best: “All our musical offerings are at once humbled and exalted by the strong saving work of Christ.” We touched on how our singing is not something we originate, but flows from the relationships of the triune God who sings (Zeph. 3:17; Heb. 2:12; Eph. 5:18-19). We sing because God sings and we’ve been made in his image. I never got to mention it on the panel, but a very helpful book on the Trinity is The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders.
As someone who’s part of a new church plant in Raleigh called Trinity’s Place, that sounds good to me!
As part of my ongoing interest in the songs we sing and the God this reflects, I’ll hopefully be reviewing some contemporary worship offerings this Fall – ranging from the New Hymns movement to shoegazing emergence music and slam poetry. If you’re an independent worship artist or church who’d like their music to be considered for review, contact me via the comments section of this post.
Soli sapienti Deo!