In my previous post (Christianity and All That Jazz) I wrote about how I see the North American church is “like a marching band stuck on a jazz stage in front of a jazz-loving audience. The world is changing or has changed, in some cases, all around us. People are playing a different tune these days. Unfortunately, Christians, by and large, are still marching to the beat of a drum from a previous era.” In this post, I want to clarify and build on that metaphor. In sum, I am not claiming that the church needs to change the gospel according to the times but rather, that it needs to adapt the emphases and ways of articulating that gospel to its audience and times.
I thought that this paragraph from my previous post made that clear:
Simply put, we need to become a jazz band and learn to translate that old, old gospel song – which we previously turned into a marching band routine – into a jazz rhythm. … Similarly, the church should not be playing the same song as the rest of the world, but we are playing on the same jazz stage to the same jazz audience nevertheless. And if we insist on staying as a marching band stuck on a jazz stage, you will probably soon find that we are playing to an empty house.
But some discussions on Facebook seem to show that it may not be as clear as I thought. So, allow me to clarify.
If the gospel is, say, the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” it is possible to remix that song into various different styles: classical, black gospel, rock, pop, marching band or jazz. And the reality is that the Christian church has always remixed the gospel, whether intentional or not, to connect with the prevailing culture of the day. From the apostle Paul’s Greek-oriented philosophical speech in Athens (Acts 17) to our contemporary global theologies, the gospel has always been culturally remixed.
But you will also always find certain Christians who confuse their particular cultural remix of the gospel as THE one and only gospel formulation for all time. These are the ones who oppose any form of change, any innovative tunes, any additional melodies, as heresy. They see their gospel as pure, and any attempts at remixing it, as a distortion of the truth.
It is, however, a fair question to ask: when does the remix turn it into a different gospel altogether? If a remix of “Amazing Grace” becomes totally unrecognizable, it is fair to ask if it’s still the same song.
This is where the song metaphor/analogy fails. With a song, the lyrics can remain the same but its tune can be changed, even drastically. I remember, for instance, singing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of a Coca-Cola commercial! (I know that dates me.) And you can sing the tune of “Amazing Grace” to totally different lyrics, making it a different song. But it’s not that clear-cut with the gospel in all its depth and complexities.
Of course, plumbing the depths and breadth of Scripture is absolutely necessary in order for us to recognize when we have changed the song and no longer simply remixing. Ancient Christian creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, are also crucial for us in knowing the gospel core. In the end, it requires a deep-in-my-heart-and-bones familiarity with the gospel to distinguish distortion from remix, heresy from contextualization.
It is here where the church needs its prophets to denounce it when the church claims to sing the gospel but is actually performing a distortion. The church also needs prophets to denounce it when it confuses one particular remix of the gospel as the ONLY true rendition of the gospel. We need to avoid either extreme of sounding like a broken record or of being stuck in shuffle mode.
Have you experienced faithful gospel remixing that is refreshing and relevant?