Today’s post was inspired by my daughter’s band performance. I enjoyed it immensely. Did I enjoy it because they played perfectly? No. From a strict critique of musicality, it was terrible. But I was in band once, so I understand how difficult it is to learn music, and I also realize that these are children. So in that light, their performance filled me with pride, joy, and inspiration, and I think they did an amazing job. Now imagine you paid Beyoncé prices to see this group play, you also have no knowledge of music, and you have the impression that this group of musicians are experienced professionals offering something of the highest quality. How do you feel as you hear the first sour notes? Irritated? Offended? Ripped off?
Music can be compared to ideologies. Music accomplishes a certain end when performed well. It entertains, it inspires, it bonds people together, it can even help people find meaning in life. Musicians, who are highly skilled, are able to impart these gifts to people who don’t have the same understanding of music that they do. What makes an ideology good? A great way to know this is to ask how people are reacting to it. People who do not read music or play instruments or sing may not know what you know or how you do it, but they can still hear the music. If the music sounds bad, why would they be compelled to keep listening? Jesus was excellent at playing “music” that attracted people. The people who were against him were afraid of a loss of power. Once people heard Jesus’ message, they realized they no longer had to be forced to listen to the message of religious authority.
None of us can ever play God’s music perfectly. Anyone who thinks they do, especially those who think their interpretation of any holy text is irrefutable, are in effect equating themselves with God. People can do this with secular institutions as well. Fundamentalism happens when people put their faith in a rigid and inflexible ideology at the top of their internal hierarchy of beliefs. Not only restricted to religion, there are secular fundamentalists, who treat things like science and politics as the sole answer to all of societies ills.
One difference between religious fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists is that the secular ones tend to be penalized for their inability to bring forth benefits to society, and the religious ones aren’t. Secular institutions produce measurable benefits for people. Through science, medicine, and technology, God has blessed society. They are always innovating and becoming better at what they do. Of course there are mistakes, but in the long run, members of these institutions tend to fail when they think they’ve got it all figured out — think about dot com startups overturning big businesses. Big business, bloated and self-satisfied, feels no need to innovate or even do things well. Scrappy newcomers are always waiting in the wings, with the clarity and motivation to do things better. They put the big business out of commission. This natural accountability incentivizes secular institutions to be productive.
The institution of religion however, much like politics — is plagued by tone deafness. It is probably why they tend to be best buddies. Because they are both never held accountable for their terrible music, they get accustomed to it, and are no longer able to hear how bad it sounds. This is why church attendance is declining — the church no longer has power in every day social life because progressive government has taken away their power to lord over others. So if the message sounds bad and people are no longer forced to listen, why would they stay? So a dwindling church, afraid and threatened, seeks to regain influence. But instead of looking outside their insular understanding to learn how they might be able to improve, they turn to their old buddy, politics. “Let’s force Americans to listen to us.”
If your playing sounds bad, you should probably keep learning and practicing instead of performing on the authority that you have life all figured out. In the same way that you would be offended listening to an amateur band performance while expecting the London Symphony Orchestra, people get offended by Christians who claim to have the answer to their problems, yet seem to just cause more problems with their message and behavior. Leave the playing to those who are good at making a message as compelling as possible to others—people who are able to connect with all members of society in the way that Jesus did. Remember: the people who rejected Jesus in his time were those who considered themselves morally and religiously superior. To the pharisees of today I say, please pipe down. Your bad playing is drowning out the Good News.