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SBTS: Country music & SBC examined

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A recent issue of Towers, the campus newspaper at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, examined a relationship between country music and the Southern Baptist Convention in a Q&A with Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration.

Following are excerpts of comments by Moore, a Mississippi native and lifelong country music fan.

Q: Theologically, what might Christians find attractive about country music?

A: Country music recognizes sin and redemption even from people who are lost. Many of these artists are lost, but they are lost in a different kind of way. Country music tends to bypass, at least a little bit, self-justification. Whereas in some other genres of music you can have sin consistently glorified with no consequences, country music rarely does that. There is a lot of singing about sin but it is always sin that has some hope of redemption or some recognition of judgment — the sowing and reaping and consequences.

Somebody asked me one day, “How can you listen to people singing who you know use drugs and participate in drunkenness?” Because people use drugs and people get drunk and country music, with some exceptions, is recognizing the full complicatedness of sin.

Think of “Ring of Fire” [by Johnny Cash] for instance. June Carter Cash is writing this talking about adultery, kind of on the front end of adultery. This isn’t a glorification of adultery; it is a real representation of what adultery feels like — “bound by wild desire, love is a burning thing” — I think that is authentic.

I think a Christian ought to be able to resonate with that because it is formed out of at least a memory of something that came from Scripture. I think the way love is presented in country music is very different from pop music, which is adolescent hormonal [love] only.

People joke about country music being a bunch of songs about how my woman left me and there is a lot of that in there. But there is also a lot about middle-aged and elderly people in love. You will never find a top 40 song about elderly people in love or about elderly people falling out of love, but in country music you do have that and I think that’s the way it ought to be.

In pop music, what you typically have is, “I want to love you all night long” or “I’m going to love you forever,” but it’s kind of abstractly forever. Country music is more, “We can’t make the house payment, but we’re going to stay together until we are dead.”

Q: On one hand, George Jones sings “Wrong’s What I Do Best” and he’s right, and then on the other hand, Hank Williams sings, “I Saw the Light.” Both sin and grace seem to abound in country music. Do you think country music has both of them mostly right?

A: I don’t have any evidence that Hank ever knew the Lord, but he seemed to halfway want to know the Lord. In “I Saw the Light” and in his Luke the Drifter stuff, you have a longing for redemption. It’s almost Augustine [saying], “Give me chastity, but not yet.” You see what redemption is, but you know that you’re not ready for it. I think that’s present in country music.

If somebody could just understand what is going on in I Saw the Light or if they could just understand how Willie Nelson can sing “Amazing Grace” and then move right into “Whiskey River,” I think they would be much more missiologically equipped than they are by listening to happy-clappy Christian music.

Q: Americans are said to live within a contradiction in which a deep religiosity exists alongside a fairly pronounced ethical Antinomianism and many see country music as reflecting that paradox. Do you agree with that?

A: Yes, but I don’t think it’s American, I think it’s Southern Baptist. Most of the country music that we hear is coming from a person who has either been redeemed through a Southern Baptist version of Christianity or damned by a Southern Baptist version of Christianity. So, all of the best aspects of Southern Baptist “Just As I Am” revivalism are present in country music — the idea that no one is too far for redemption, the idea of new beginnings, being born again — all those are present in country music.

But you also have the carnal, “Jesus is my Savior but not my Lord” unregenerate person, keeping the hypocrisy hidden under the church attendance — all that is present too. Even from artists who are not Baptists, but are growing up in a Bible Belt South where, as one sociologist put it, “Baptists are the center of gravity,” we (Southern Baptist culture) created country music for both good and for ill.

Q: How has country music affected the SBC and how has the SBC affected country music?

A: When you look at the trajectory of country music as coming out of the South, it became more and more commercial and more and more “showy” and consumerist. So did the SBC. Whether there is a direct link or whether common cultural factors were impacting both the Grand Ole Opry and the SBC remains to be seen, but both follow a similar trajectory. County music started as a group of people who were largely despised as ignorant hillbillies and rednecks, but who are playing the music that arises out of their experience and speaking to that experience.

Country music was not even welcomed in Nashville at the beginning; the cultural elites of Nashville hated the idea of being identified with country music because they saw it as backward. But country music spoke so well to the experience of common people that it became commercially viable and then commercially profitable and the more commercially profitable it became, the more mainstream it became in the culture and the more mainstream it became in the culture, the more like the rest of the culture it became and the more then it was shaped by that commercial success.

The SBC has the exact same trajectory. It starts with a group of people who are cut off from the established churches, seen as backward, but able to speak to common people with the simplicity of the Gospel, and able to speak so well that the SBC becomes successful. The more successful the churches become, the more consumerist and elite they become and the less powerful.

Why do people like to listen to Cash on American VI or American V when he is singing, “Hurt?” It’s because it is a dying man. You don’t see a strong, sober picture of a man facing death. Instead you have the authenticity of somebody whose voice is raspy and who is dying. The difference between Cash and Rascal Flatts is the difference between a prophetic, marginalized Baptist witness and the slick packaged product of Southern Baptist success.

PANEL DISCUSSES NEW McLAREN BOOK — Brian McLaren, author and leading voice of the emergent church movement, has written a new book that seeks to reformulate Christianity, but it is nothing more than a wholesale rejection of historic Christianity, members of a panel discussion concluded at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in March.

Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., along with professors Bruce Ware, Greg Wills, Stephen Wellum and Jim Hamilton, considered McLaren’s recently released work, “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith.” Mohler served as moderator.

Ware represented the sentiment of other panelists in suggesting the book might be more accurately titled “an old kind of apostasy,” because it rejects the God of the Bible.

“There is an audacity and an arrogance in this book that is breathtaking,” Ware said. “To look God in the face, as McLaren does, and say, ‘You are not God,’ is just stunning. Here is a man who sees the God of the Bible and despises that God. So what he does is create God in a whole different image, an image that fits his postmodern ‘evangelicalism.’ This will appeal to a person who knows little or nothing about the Bible, but who is steeped in the culture.”

Mohler said many will find the arguments in McLaren’s book compelling so long as they avoid God’s Word. McLaren’s overhaul of the Christian faith, which he calls a “personal journey,” amounts to an undermining of the biblical storyline of creation-fall-redemption-consummation, Mohler said.

“If you actually read the Bible, you are going to end up having to say that this is a dishonest attempt to make the Bible say what is does not say. His narrative subversion just does not work,” Mohler said.

Panelists pointed out that McLaren attributes the traditional, orthodox reading of Scripture and the doctrines that arise from it to an outdated, Greco-Roman methodology of reading the text. In this way, they said, McLaren makes himself the ultimate authority for properly interpreting Scripture.

“McLaren sets himself up as the one authority who at last understands the Bible accurately, Wellum said.

“When you actually let the Bible speak for itself, there is no way that you could come to the conclusions that he reaches. Clearly, McLaren has an evolutionary worldview that is a process view of God. There is an evolutionary view of the Old Testament that comes from outside the text and is planted on the text. He is giving you the impression that he stands at the end of the line, though he wants to say that he is on a quest,” Wellum said.

Video and audio of the panel discussion are available at: http://www.sbts.edu/resources/chapel/chapel-spring-2010/panel-discussion-a-new-kind-of-christianity-brian-mclaren-recasts-the-gospel/

SOUTHERN CUTS ENERGY COSTS — Dan Diffey looks at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary differently than most students and staff members. Most admire the campus’ stately buildings, the inspiring steeple of Alumni Memorial Chapel and Southern’s manicured grounds.

Diffey looks around and sees the “on” light of unmanned computers, air conditioning units working in overdrive and light bulbs burning bright. Ultimately, he see money being tossed away.

Last August, Diffey joined Southern’s operations department as the energy education specialist, a position that allows him to explore the SBTS campus and find ways to make it more energy efficient. Last year the campus administration adopted a collection of energy management guidelines and Diffey was brought on board to facilitate those guidelines.

“Our ultimate goal is to save money,” Diffey said. “It is all about being good stewards of our money and being better stewards of our environment, which is important.”

Diffey, who jokingly refers to himself as Southern Seminary’s “Energy Czar,” works directly with representatives of Energy Education, a company responsible for creating and helping implement customized energy conservation programs for K-12 school districts, institutions of higher education and large churches.

In 2009, Southern entered a multi-year partnership with Energy Education to learn how to heighten efficiency and ultimately save budget funds. Diffey reviews data and tours campus facilities with the Sodexo facilities management team and Energy Education representatives, who are on campus at least twice a month, and then seeks to implement cost saving measures.

Diffey reports that with the support of Sodexo, and the campus community, Southern is planning on saving at least 20 percent on 2010 energy expenditures with these new energy conservation initiatives, which equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.

“In the first six months of the program we’ve saved more than $115,000,” Diffey said. “And we’re about to step up into even more cost savings.

“In the first phase of the program we’ve focused on some big things, like making sure that we’re only heating and cooling facilities when needed and making sure that we’re not keeping lighting on when unnecessary. The chapel, for instance, costs more than $2 per hour to light. That doesn’t sounds like much, but that is about $50 a day, which computes to over $15,000 a year to light the chapel. If no one is using that facility, we should keep those lights off.”

Diffey is starting to focus on smaller things, like asking employees to turn their computers off at the end of the work day and turning lights off when rooms and offices are empty, which will compute into thousands of dollars in savings.

“If every individual would turn their computer off when they leave for the evening they would each save the seminary between $150 and $300 each year. We have enough employees for that to mean saving thousands of dollars each year,” Diffey said.

“We’re just in the habit of keeping things on. When you keep the lights on, even in small rooms, you’re talking about a couple hundred dollars a year. That is why I am the energy educator; I hope to make people conscious about how much money they consume in using energy when it is not necessary.”

Individual staff members will be asked to take responsibility for their own workspace, and each office will have a point person who will work directly with Diffey.

“We are not trying to make people feel uncomfortable, we’re just asking them to be good stewards,” Diffey said. “When you set guidelines or general principles, there are always exceptions. We are just trying to save nickels and dimes, thousands of times a year. That turns into significant amounts of money, which can be used towards better things, like furthering the mission of Southern.”

Some general energy management guidelines include:

— Staff members are responsible for implementing the guidelines during the time that they are present in the classroom or office.

— All office machines (copy machines, laminating equipment, etc.) are switched off each night and during unoccupied times. Fax machines remain on.

— All computers are turned off each night. This includes the monitor, local printer and speakers. Network equipment is excluded.

— All capable computers are to be programmed for the “energy saver” mode using the power management feature.

— Temperature settings on thermostats are to be about 68 degrees in the winter and 72 in the summer.
Jeff Robinson and Emily Griffin write for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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