All posts in “Arts & Culture”

Mickey Mouse only real when shared

Life in community is important.
By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald

As a newspaper reporter, I once attended a media event at Walt Disney World. We journalists would attend morning press conferences about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.

For three days, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime.

The catch was, I was by myself.

A statue of Walt and the mouse demonstrating life in community.

Even Walt had a mouse to pal around with here.

There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Walt Disney World. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, rode Space Mountain in the dark or got dropped from the Tower of Terror, I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated. I’d get off the rides with hundreds of people and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.

I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people around me, but all I felt was alone and self-conscious — and that I definitely shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids. I know solo travel has become a big thing, and maybe it works for some. No rules, no compromises, no agenda but your own. For me, the experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with people I love. 

Leaving it all behind

In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless graduates from college, disillusioned with materialistic society. He leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That leads to random stops around the country, all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.

Image of man walking in snow from Into the Wild.

Paramount Pictures

Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend, Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”

Near the end of the film, Chris’ opinion has changed. His rejection of family, church and society has left him dangerously alone. To find himself, by himself, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, he writes in the margin of the book, Doctor Zhivago: “Happiness only real when shared.”

Church and elder brothers

During a time of family struggle a few years ago, we stepped away from church and small groups for a few months. We felt defeated, disillusioned and let down. A holy discontent, we reasoned. Church felt less like a close community of believers and more like one continuous argument over worship and preaching styles.

So we just stopped going. I never came close to abandoning my faith, but church felt empty. For the time being, the thought of just God, me, a Bible and a journal sounded pretty attractive.

Chris McCandless’ story haunted me those months away from church. What did my faith mean apart from the messiness of community? Did this all really just begin and end in my own head? What’s the end game in loving God but not the church?

Around that time I also read Timothy Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, in which he drew on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Churches can be so unpleasant, he wrote, because we can see them as being filled with elder brothers — self-righteous, jealous, graceless jerks. Yet when I stayed away because of that, I had to come to grips with my own self-righteous jerkiness.

Keller also said this:

“There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”

Long story short: We didn’t stay away for long. In fact, not long after we came back to the church, we felt God’s call to missions. Loving God but not the church had left me with an incomplete faith, and fewer people to share it with. Holy discontent didn’t stay holy for very long.

Life in Community

This month, First Free Rockford is engaging with a sermon series called Life in Community. Whether we’re married, single or widowed, it does us all good to realize community is where we thrive. God placed us in community to worship, grow and serve together — not to ride life’s roller coasters alone.

Views expressed on this blog are those of the writer alone. References to films, music or other works should not be considered an endorsement by First Free Rockford.

 

Church music for a new century

By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald

This summer’s “1 Hit Wonders” sermon series got me thinking about the term’s origin. It refers to any singer or band that produced a single popular song, then was forgotten. Think: The Macarena. Think: Who Let the Dogs Out?

Over the next day and a half while you’re trying to get those songs out of your head (sorry), think about Christian worship music, why we sing the songs we do in church and how many of those songs will be remembered years from now. Differences of opinion about church music might seem like a purely modern discussion. Hardly. 

 

Pastor Luke Teaching about Church Music in the One Hit Wonders Series

Pastor Luke teaching in the “1 Hit Wonders” series

Rediscovering a timeless perspective

Recently, I happened upon a box of old books. One red-covered volume particularly caught my eye: How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival, edited by R.A. Torrey and published in 1901. Torrey was a ministry partner of Dwight L. Moody and a key figure in the early days of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.

Thumbing through this brittle, old book, I stopped on the chapter called Music in a Revival, by Daniel B. Towner. Towner wrote Trust and Obey and dozens of other hymns. He was music director for several churches and finally at Moody from 1893 to 1919.

Here’s what Towner recommended as the 20th century dawned.  It’s a 381-word paragraph, which would have gotten me kicked out of journalism school. But stick with it. Let his thoughts simmer. I’ve bolded a couple of key sentences.

 

Towner’s recommendation

“While great care should be exercised in the selection of music for revival meetings, yet one must not be hypercritical about new songs. About twenty years ago a committee of literary men and musicians were compiling a denominational hymnbook, and certain hymns and tunes were rejected as not being of a high enough order. But to-day those same hymns and tunes are being used in all denominational books as they are revised and compiled, and have proven by their vitality that they belong among the classics. If a tune is well-written, no matter how simple, don’t be afraid to try it. If a hymn does not teach error, direct or implied, don’t be afraid to give it a trial; but if it does, no matter what its literary merit may be, let it alone. Let it be distinctly understood that we are not opposed to the use of old hymns, not by any means, for quite the contrary is the case. We believe that the good old hymns are the heritage of the church, and should be regarded as such, and that they should be sacredly kept and perpetuated, and that each successive generation should be taught to sing them well, but to hold on to these to the exclusion of the new ones would be a calamity. As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not. As we become familiar with a tune, it gradually loses its power with us, even though we never become tired of it. But the new tune arrests the attention, and gives the truth it carries a chance to enter the heart. Some people seem to outlive their usefulness, while others never do. It is just so with songs. There are those that should be in every selection, and there are others that seem to have been embalmed, as it were, and laid away in the denominational books which are never used. We do not object, they have served well no doubt, now let them rest in peace, while others come on and do service in their turn.”

What a great, balanced viewpoint. We honor and sing the old hymns as “the heritage of the church,” while also realizing that new songs and styles may strike us with biblical truth from a slightly different and fresher angle.

Book Cover for How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival
Book Cover for "How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival"

As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not.

“Heretical Flapdoodle” or “We’ll be singing this in heaven”?

There’s a lot to sift through. If you google “worship songs with bad theology” or “hymns with bad theology,” grab a Snickers bar (or an artisanal kale cupcake if you prefer) because you’re not going anywhere for a while. The same hymn or worship song can evoke a wide range of opinion, from “heretical flapdoodle” to “we’ll be singing this in heaven.”

 

 

Church music is for every generation.

Every generation produces a vast catalog of songs that are quickly forgotten, and a few that live on. That’s how music works, from Mozart to the Macarena or from Charles Wesley to Hillsong United. A hymnal or worship songbook amounts to a Greatest Hits collection, and even from those, we sing only a tiny fraction. We’ll find some of today’s worship music in tomorrow’s songbooks. Most — even some pretty good songs — will wind up on the flapdoodle pile, alongside most of the hymns written generations ago. Some might even be rediscovered and rescued.

 

Audience Participation

Which leads to our audience-participation question: Of the worship songs and hymns composed in the past two decades, which ones will people still be singing 100 years from now? And why? Send us your comments. No flapdoodle, please.